The New Repertory Theatre's ''Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'' is a rather radical update/reinterpretation of Tom Stoppard's 1967 success. Rick Lombardo's production doesn't exactly throw out Stoppard's notion of making the two minor characters in "Hamlet" major characters in a play of their own, but it pushes the disjunction between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's baffled and banal existence and the poetic self importance of Shakespearean theatrics so far that the play sort of falls over the edge of the conceit and turns itself inside out. How does this happen? Well, although Phillip Patrone's manic Rosencrantz and Diego Arciniegas' depressed Guildenstern are recognizably modern types decked out in coordinated grayish brocade capes over doublet and pancake pantsthe summer stock version of Elizabethan court dressthe "Hamlet' for which these guys are whiling away time waiting in the wings is a postmodern freak show.
Instead of a decorous court beneath whose custom and ceremony murderous plots are aboil, this "Hamlet" is Peter Sellars directs Rocky Horror, with John Kuntz powerfully creepy as a homicidal Prince in black pajamas, roller skates, and lipsticked whiteface a la the MC in "Cabaret"; skeletal Doug Lockwood dainty in drag as Ophelia and tipsily towering as a six foot Gertrude topped by another four feet of wedding cake wig, with daring décolletage exposing a concave and hairy chest; Steven Barkhimer commanding as a colonial colonel of a Claudius in military epaulettes and Bermuda shorts, and Ed Sorrell fading out as a dull mooncalf of a Polonius.
Not that I wouldn't be willing to sit though more than Stoppard's snippets of this far out "Hamlet", but one of its drawbacks as the background for the brief careers of the social climbing school friends who have most of the lines in Stoppard's version is that this royal family is plainlyas far as anything so blatantly theatrical can be called "plain"not of the Danish court or an Elizabethan English version of the Danish court, but actors in a "Hamlet" production cast from the ragtag troupe of Players, the "tragedians of the City", who meet up with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the way to the castle of Elsinore. All this is very interesting, and rewards the audience with one spectacularly brilliant performance in Jeremiah Kissel's First Player, who is able to rant and rhapsodize, jest and mourn, threaten and cower, pander and philosophize, and die and die again with boundless virtuosity and utter credibility in an amazing variety of picturesque poses. But it strands poor Patrone and Arsiniegas with nothing to do but talk or mug in a context where one lightning lit image is worth a thousand words.
The Players may be down on their luck, but their "Hamlet" and Lombardo's "Ros and Guil" have first rate designers working on their behalf Kristin Loeffler's costumes are wonderful examples of whatever the hell it is they are supposed to be, Daniel Meeker's lighting turns Richard Chambers's versatile black constructivist set dazzling and terrifying by turns. This really is Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. Too bad the flashes occupy about 20 minutes of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" 's nearly three hour length. Some of the tedium may be Tom Stoppard's fault. Now that the outline of his play's non plot is as much part of theatre lore as "Hamlet" itself is, and vaguely known even to those who have never seen or read it, the author might consider going back to the script and pruning a phrase or two, removing one or both of the intermissions. Meanwhile, as their Beckettian vaudeville routines are met by eerie silence on the part of the New Rep's dutiful audience, two good actors seem lost in some outer circle of Hell, bereft of even a fleeting belief in the power of words, either Stoppard's or Shakespeare's, to fend off despair.