Last-chance theater: The Wilma’s season-ender “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”

Do you need to have seen how the Wilma just treated Hamlet to enjoy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead? Nah, not really. Could it help? Maybe a little. The companion pieces, written 400+ years apart, rarely get staged by the same company one after the other, with the same actors and the same set, but Blanka Zizka’s done just that to close out the Wilma’s season. The two casts are essentially identical with one notable exception: Brian Ratcliffe slips into the role of the Danish prince, replacing Zainab Jah, but Hamlet’s not really that significant in R&GAD; it’s all about the titular characters’ absurd and tragicomic misadventures.

Those credits go to Keith Conallen and Jered McLenigan, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, Hamlet’s old friends and courtiers in Denmark. The former’s, well, a simpler man, content to reject existential anguish and find silver linings. The latter’s much more of an overbearing logician, battering his childhood buddy with syllogisms and rants about their plight. Conallen and McLenigan are captivating, and they carry the production with ease.

Tom Stoppard hit a homerun when he wrote this classic in 1966, a play about a play with a play contained inside the play. The protagonists are regularly confused for each other (themselves included), but they’re tertiary characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy. They’re tasked with delivering Hamlet to England by the murderous new king of Denmark, with a letter that instructs the King of England to put Hamlet to death. And, well, it doesn’t exactly pan out quite like that.

In three acts with two intermissions, R&G play games, verbally spar, fret over their assignment and wait. The king and queen have also charged them with trying to assess the source of Hamlet’s extreme misery and erratic behavior, which only amplifies their panic (Rosencrantz especially) because, true to form, Hamlet’s an aloof mystery.

One of the marvels about R&GAD is the physicality. The leads crawl, jump, run, tumble and writhe all over the set, which is a cool raised stage among a bed of stone, with sunflowers rising out of charcoal rubble where swords were for five weeks in Hamlet. Word is that Zizka’s been adding focus on respecting the physical bodies that performers use, preparing actors for all the demands she puts on them. It shows. Some of these actors look like gymnasts and ninjas—and it’s impressive.

Though our main pair drive the show, it’s nearly stolen by Ed Swidey in the role of First Player. His character controls and directs a group of tragedians, and it’s he who introduces the fascinating rhetorical notion that theater—all theater, really—is about love, blood and rhetoric. In a pinch, only two of the three can be combined, but blood must always be there. It’s another way in which R&GAD dwells on death; another great refrain comes when Guildenstern ruminates on death as the ultimate sleep, a finite finish: “There is no applause, only silence and some second-hand clothes, that’s death.”

I have to say it: I loved Alfred (Adam Kerbel), the Player’s goofy prop and maybe prostitute. Alfred adds even more comic relief struggling to put on and take off a skirt when it seems like he’ll be put to (sex) work and taking on a female role in the Hamlet-requested performance of The Murder of Gonzago, a clever nod to Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, The Mousetrap. She even got good and ravaged by another tragedian—and it’s downright carnal.

Rozencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a little bit high-brow, yes; it’s wonky and quirky at points, but truly thrills Shakespeare superfans. A mild understanding of Hamlet is a plus. But at its core, it’s this really clever and charming play on words, concepts and art. It speaks to art as a salve, a buoy or port in the storm that is life, a way to attempt making sense of these lives we lead. And it serves as a bridge between Olde England and a more modern theater understanding. Tragedy is palpable from beginning to end, because of the nature of Hamlet and because of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s interpretation of dire circumstances. But Stoppard manages to pull all of these complex elements together into a timeless work of theater that companies like the Wilma are having fun revisiting—and ably so—for pleased-as-punch audiences.

Through Sat., June 20. $10-$30. The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. 215.893.9456.