Acting on Assumptions

Tom Stoppard is a tough sell to the typical theatergoer. And by typical I mean a real die-hard fan of live performance who pays to see several plays a year. Most people don't go to the theater. Ever. Just like most people don't eat fried calf brains or read Doris Lessing novels. Doing such things is odd and, to use a phrase repeated in campaign commercials of late, "out of the mainstream." Why would anyone want to? What's the point? What's fun about that?

Some plays aren't fun. Last year a musical called I Got Merman played briefly at the Majestic in what was billed as a pre-Broadway tryout. It was so awful the ushers booed. This show didn't just flop, it was euthanized.

Theater critics aren't typical theatergoers. We see hundreds of shows a year. We pick out flaws the less exacting ticket-buyer might overlook. The leading man who lisps. The leading lady who sings like a strangled cat. The costumes that turn pretty actors into chubby hobos. Very often, it's the venue that's the fun-killer. New theater companies are popping up like toadstools--more than 50 groups have mounted at least one production this year. Dallas is so strapped for performance space that actors are forced to ply their craft in drafty church annexes, flea-ridden rehearsal halls and dilapidated art galleries. Parking spaces? An afterthought. Air conditioning? A crapshoot. Hard chairs? A given.

And that brings us to Tom Stoppard, a British playwright of some importance whose works are considered high art and therefore not high on the fun meter. Stoppard's plays include The Real Thing, Jumpers and Travesties, none big on the audience hit parade because, while they can be a kick to read, they don't exactly offer a jump-for-joy evening's entertainment. (His only real commercial success came with the movie Shakespeare in Love, for which he won a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1998.)

Theater companies looking to sell tickets to more than their immediate families are better off not doing Stoppard. But the little group called Risk Theater Initiative is taking its chances with a minimalistic version of Stoppard's three-act drama Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, performed at the back of Sons of Hermann Hall in what used to be a bowling alley (hello, hard chairs and bad parking).

It is one of Stoppard's early plays, first produced in 1966. The title is a line from Hamlet. The title characters (played by Jack Birdwell and Ian Leson) are minor figures in the Shakespeare play, a couple of courtier-spies ordered to take the Danish prince to England to keep him from causing more trouble back home. They don't survive the journey, and Hamlet returns to Castle Elsinore for the big wipeout scene.

What Risk Theater's actors do in this production is all right technically. They are faithful to the playwright's intentions, even if those intentions mean shutting off the audience from any emotional connection to what's happening onstage. Stoppard once said his only expectation of actors was that they "utter with clarity." Birdwell and Leson handle the torrents of language with great clarity and with remarkably uncluttered acting. Leson, so good last year in Kitchen Dog Theater's weird play The Danube, is an expert at simplifying difficult lines. Here he gets them across at lightning speed. If he spoke at the rate of casual conversation, the play would last all night.

The remarkable Chad Spear, as the leader of the Players, has his best moments in a long monologue in Act 2 advising Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how to act. "Relax! Respond! That's what people do," the Player says. That is what people are supposed to do at the theater. But it's not easy at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Stoppard doesn't want us to relax and doesn't care if we respond.

Stoppard's play owes its style to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the absurdist masterpiece (performed by Risk Theater earlier this year) in which two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, play complicated word games and talk of death as they wait for a man who never appears. Stoppard builds his wordy drama on the conceit that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live only within the confines of Shakespeare's play. When they're not with Shakespeare's characters, they don't know what to do. They're forced to wait in limbo until they can once again be swept into the tragedy of Hamlet. "The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that someone interesting will come on any minute," says Rosencrantz, hovering "offstage" with Guildenstern.

To pass the time, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip coins (always coming up heads), talk about death and watch the Players rehearse "The Murder of Gonzago" for an upcoming gig at Elsinore. We learn no more and no less about the two than Shakespeare told us. And yet they converse in Stoppard's loopy rhetoric nonstop for 155 minutes. What they say isn't all that important.

"Grown-up art is art that withholds information," Stoppard said in a talk at the New York Public Library in 1999. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is Stoppard at his grown-uppitiest because of his assumptions about the audience. He just assumes that everyone knows Hamlet backward and forward. As more and more of Shakespeare's lines tumble from characters crisscrossing the stage in front of poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard assumes that we can recognize Polonius, Fortinbras and the rest without providing name tags. He also assumes that we'll see touches of Godot in the Abbott and Costello silliness that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in. He never explains a thing.

It gets even more complicated. Stoppard's forte is the meta-narrative, a lofty term for a story-within-a-story, or in this case, play-within-a-play. Hamlet already has the meta gimmick going when the players act out the murder of a king in front of the king who has murdered a king. Stoppard takes it one step further by letting us see Hamlet unfold through the eyes of the two minor figures. At one point we watch a play within a play within a play. It's the verbal equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing.

And it is exhausting, beginning to end. Stoppard doesn't give a flip whether we understand a word. Some of his writing is intentionally nonsensical. The opposite of "amnesiac," says Rosencrantz, is "elephantine." Stoppard's inspirations as a playwright, he has said, were Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Pinter's The Birthday Party and Beckett's Godot, all baffling, brilliant dramas that exploded all preconceived notions of what a play should be.

And what should a play be? That is the question. With this production, the aptly named Risk Theater risks assuming that its audience will embrace Stoppard, absurdism and an absurdly uncomfortable performing space. Director Marianne Galloway and her actors may not be consumed with a desire for commercial returns--on the Saturday night reviewed, there were just 13 theatergoers watching the 13 actors onstage--but by choosing such difficult material and staging it in such an inhospitable environment, they also assume we're willing to suffer for their art.