Shakespeare’s diverse tragedies, comedies and classic dramas have long been rearranged and newly interpreted by many directors and writers. British playwright Tom Stoppard’s take on “Hamlet” — “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” winner of a 1968 Tony Award — is one such treat, and you can see it as part of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare Festival, this summer in Balboa Park.
It’s a bizarre farce that takes a little settling into, but once its path is clear, be ready for laugh after laugh. Jay Whittaker as Guildenstern and John Lavelle as Rosencrantz, are exceptional as two friends charged with delivering a letter about Hamlet to King Claudius at his castle in Elsinore.
The play begins with the pair alone on stage playing a game of coin toss. Guildenstern can’t understand why every coin turns up heads. He tries to reason this with several explanations, which Rosencrantz can’t follow, and soon the two might as well be speaking Greek as nothing makes sense. It’s like “Who’s on First?” the comedy routine made famous by Abbott and Costello.
The guys are distracted by everything, especially when trying to understand what the other is saying, and at times, which one of them is he and not the other? When a traveling circus of Tragedian misfits suddenly engulfs them, bewilderment reigns supreme as they find themselves mixed up in the troupe’s production.
Tragedian Player (Sherman Howard) is intent on resurrecting memories of the production of “Hamlet,” but in very odd ways. His crew is as confused as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are trying to figure out what they’re watching. Player King explains that his troupe works inside out — they do what they would do backstage on the stage and what they would do on the stage, backstage; a metaphor for the entire play.
There are mildly (and wildly) amusing moments between the characters. In scenes where Rosencrantz is trying to lick his toe (but failing because he can’t reach it), I dare you to keep a straight face. But that’s topped when he insists Guildenstern do it for him.
Just learning the lines for this play was certainly a challenge, but Whittaker and Lavelle excel in every difficult moment of their portrayals. Someone should feature them in their own comedy show.
The rotating cast of Festival players who portray the Tragedian are terrific in creating a surprising and hilarious time — especially Stephen Hu as Player Queen Alfred. Under brilliant direction by Adrian Noble, the actors and shenanigans in this production are a rare treat.
If you go
■ What: ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’ part of 2013 Shakespeare Festival
■ When: In repertory to Sept. 26
■ Where: The Old Globe Theatre’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park, San Diego