For some, it happens every time we hear the news; for others, only when the clutter of daily life recedes long enough for a few moments’ undistracted thought. But every so often we find ourselves wondering whether we have any power in this world or are mere pawns to bigger players.
This philosophical wormhole spirals open in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the 1966 play that heralded Tom Stoppard as one of the world’s great thinkers and writers. Entertaining and profound in equal measure, the piece is too rarely performed nowadays. It’s tricky to get right, to be sure, and requires a large cast, but, happily, the Pasadena-based classical repertory company A Noise Within is giving it a go — and succeeding marvelously.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as you might recall, are bit players in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” their fate announced late in the story in the line that gives Stoppard’s play its title.
Stoppard imagines these former school chums of Hamlet’s being stuck onstage like players without scripts, awaiting their scattered moments in the main action. This leaves them with long stretches to wonder: What is their purpose? What will happen next and how should they respond?
Kasey Mahaffy as Rosencrantz and Rafael Goldstein as Guildenstern recall such timeless clown duos as Laurel and Hardy or “Waiting for Godot’s” Estragon and Vladimir.
Guildenstern is more analytical, which often makes him gloomy. Thoughts rumble through Goldstein in excited rushes and morose fits, the latter causing him to drop to the ground defeated — legs splayed, back slumped, like a rag doll suddenly eviscerated of stuffing.
Mahaffy’s Rosencrantz is generally the sun to Guildenstern’s gloom. A boy forever, he delights in the games they invent to pass the time. Deeper thinking is not beyond his capacity — indeed, he’s often the voice of reason — but he tends not to dwell on things, which is, perhaps, his way of staying sane.
Despite their differences, they are determined to get through this together. Brothers to the end, they reassure each other with an occasional pat on the hand or full-on bear hug.
A row of old-fashioned footlights forms a border, confining the pair to a mostly empty stage — the near-nothingness of their existence. The light is usually a chilly, foggy blue. In courtly jerkins, cloaks and floppy hats, the pair are all dressed up with no place to go. (The designs are by, respectively, Frederica Nascimento, Ken Booth and Jenny Foldenauer.)
A band of players (the ones Hamlet will importune with “speak the speech, I pray you”) roams the same emptiness, seeking an audience — for without one, they cannot exist. Their leader, portrayed with wonderful mellifluousness by Wesley Mann, is at once a scrappy vagabond and an astute philosopher king.
Poignancy and chuckle-inducing bits of physical comedy give way to a growing sense of urgency as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize their part in “Hamlet” isn’t going well. Mortality looms. Can they survive — or at least find some meaning before time runs out?
Director Geoff Elliott and a cast of 15 navigate the existential quandaries and philosophical riddles with reassuring buoyancy.
“We have not been picked out simply to be abandoned,” Guildenstern says near the beginning, recalling the summons that drew them into “Hamlet’s” drama.
But later on, sensing opportunity slip away, Rosencrantz gloomily predicts, “If we stopped breathing we’d vanish.”
Life in a nutshell.
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‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: In repertory scattered Fridays-Sundays; ends Nov. 18. Check website for details.
Info: (626) 356-3121, anoisewithin.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes