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Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are (absurdly) dead

“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead,” Tom Stoppard’s 1966 Edinburgh Fringe Festival debut, is an absurdist nightmare comedy along the lines of “Waiting for Godot.”

Like Beckett, Ionesco and others, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern” explores that narrow divide between art and reality, argues choice and predestination, and questions the meaning of life.

“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” opened last week at Camelot Theatre.

To appreciate the play, first think “Hamlet” and then turn the play inside out. Where Hamlet is central to “Hamlet,” in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern,” the Prince of Denmark is largely silent and off stage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are minor characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” are center stage in Stoppard’s play. It’s their voices we hear and their confusion we experience as they play out their existence on stage, merely figures in some other reckoning.

It’s a little confusing at first, but by the second act, the forests of Elsinore are named, Elliot Anderson as mad Hamlet appears on scene with staring, glowing eyes and finally, you know where you are. Sort of.

Alex Boyles and Erny Rosales are cast as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and it’s rare to see two actors so in sync with each other. They had the split-second timing of their lines down, and what looked seamless on stage took hours and hours of work.

“We practiced mostly together,” Rosales said. “We could learn our lines, but once the lines were learned we had to connect them, and so we needed each other.”

In odd ways, Boyles and Rosales as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are each other and at the same time complement each other, often confusing their own names and identities. They both wear hoodies, leather bomber jackets and identical red silk polka-dot drawers under their kilts. Boyles’ superior, scientific stance as Guildenstern is comical when he’s playing to Rosales’ seemingly more simple-minded sympathetic character — Rosales is Lou Costello to Boyles’ hyped-up Abbott. They even run through Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” and change money routines.

Reviewers of Stoddard’s play have not infrequently commented on the “who’s on first” nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Game of Questions as the two practice to interrogate mad Hamlet, but it was Camelot director Gwen Overland who actually added the Abbott and Costello routines to amp up Stoddard’s avant-garde ridiculousness. And it works.

The cast clearly had fun with the production. “There’s a certain freedom in a show like this, because it’s literally absurd, so anything you do is fair game,” explained Boyles. “In this show you can have a dance break in the middle of it and the audience doesn’t bat an eye.”

To Boyles’ point, while there’s music in some of the “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern” productions, there’s nothing to compare with the bizarre perfection of Rosales wagging his butt to “Despacito” while Boyles pirouettes, or the full-cast line dance finale of “Vivir mi Vida.”

Gwen Overland clearly sees “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” as tragedy, comedy and hope, too.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead because they’re written to die. We’re all going to die,” Overland said. “What do you do with that? Do you live a grim, tragic life or do you figure out how to make every moment count?”

Overland places her reminders that every moment counts throughout the production. Dylan Spooner in the role of meek, hiding Alfred grabs your attention with small pings on a triangle, resetting time. And Renee Hewitt as The Player is magnificent as a dominatrix, wielding a crop to keep her traveling troubadours in order and to admonish Guildenstern and Rosencrantz — and us too — that life is short, complicated and often absurdly inexplicable.

“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” runs about 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. The production continues in the Camelot Theatre through Nov. 11. Tickets are $20 to $34, with a benefit show in support of OSF Rising Wednesday, Nov. 7. For more information and tickets, see www.CamelotTheatre.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Alex Boyles, left, and Erny Rosales play the title roles in Camelot Theatre's production of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."