VIDEO, REVIEW: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" at SF State

Celeste Conowitch, left, and Anthony Agresti, who play the parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, practice their lines for the opening night performance of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" in their dressing room at SF State, Dec. 2, 2011. Photo by Gregory Moreno.

Humor isn’t all Jersey Shore rejects and fart jokes, every now and again intelligent comedy finds its way through the pop culture haze and it’s important to grab on before the curtain falls.

Starting Dec. 1 the Little Theatre at SF State began a two week run of Tom Stoppard’s existential Shakespearean farce “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The play is directed jointly by SF State theatre arts professors Jo Tomalin and John Wilson.

Stoppard’s play follows the journey of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Celeste Conowitch and Anthony Agretsi, respectively, two minor characters in the play “Hamlet” who eventually find themselves sentenced to death in a comic misunderstanding.

In this piece, however, their misadventures and philosophical quandaries become the focal point. Along the way they encounter a band of travelers led by The Player, performed by Brennan Cook, participate in sparse conversations with Hamlet, played by Adam Reeser, and even encounter pirates.

The stage itself is a crucial influence on the audience before the play even begins. The set crew, led by Andrew Akraboff, Tomalin and Wilson, creates a stage as off-center as the play itself. It is uneven, with tilting levels and a large scrap half-pipe with a door serving as one of the main entrances. Several large frames, decreasing in size, stand and tilt sideways, creating a twisted stage picture.

These set design choices in combination with a pre-show musical selection of cartoon music and tunes sounding like they’re inspired by “The Great Train Robbery” keep the tone off-kilter and eerily entrancing.

But like a PB&J sandwich, what is a stage without its actors? The show’s student cast provides an energetic and entertaining version of Stoppard’s re-imagined characters.

Conowitch and Agretsi provide a very intriguing chemistry and dynamic to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, displaying a timing and rapport that can only come with trust on stage. Without missing a beat, the ebbs and flows of their dialogue come off naturally and confidently. The two are intentionally dressed identically, as the characters’ personalities and identities lose individual definition and at times meld together.

As the leads, Conowitch and Agretsi provide a solid base and a hilarious interchange that keeps the play moving.

As The Player, Cook brings something special to the whole piece with not only solid and intelligent comedic wit and body language, but also gems of moments that staple in a deeper and more serious meaning behind the piece. Cook uses his hyper-expressive face and body to create movement that is impossible not to find entertaining, his limbs almost taking on a character of their own as they flail and pose.

The Player’s crew is a unified character of their own, providing great examples of physical comedy and gags that provided stand out moments throughout the show. Other characters from Hamlet make their way onto the stage and provide real-life dialogue from the original piece as a tie-back to Shakespeare’s creation. Although at the same time traditional moments are re-created and made their own, such as Hamlet dragging the body of Polonius, played by Philip Greenberg, around the stage like a rag doll.

The strength of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” lies partially in its physicality, but mainly Stoppard provides an intelligent and consistent wit throughout the piece that sways between philosophical wandering and satiric exploration of life’s meanings.

While the piece may not be the shortest in the world, it does many things for an audience that should prove sufficient. It is a funny piece with well-done staging by Tomalin and Wilson and a strong, well-rounded cast.

On the flip side, the play investigates the mysteries and absurdity behind the human experience, the insignificance of probability and the inevitability of death.

Tomalin and Wilson bring to the SF State Little Theatre stage a metadrama that is definitely a bit absurd, but is a strong, timely and intelligent piece that brings multiple layers to life.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” runs its final week in the SF State Little Theater Dec. 8 through 10 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Dec. 11.

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  • We saw this SF show twice and have seen R & G several times over the last 25 years… and every time you hear something new. This cast brings a lot of magic to the work and the artistic vision is great down to the last stitch!