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Sunday, November 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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American Player Theatre's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead attacks thorny questions with humor and verve
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Life is confusing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Credit:Carissa Dixon

"We are entitled to some direction," says Guildenstern, one half of a tragicomic duo, in the first act of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The American Players Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's existential riff on Hamlet (through Oct. 5) opened Saturday night in the Spring Green company's outdoor amphitheater. Guildenstern's plaintive comment resonates on several levels: In reality, he's an actor (Steve Haggard) needing direction, but his frustration speaks to the need we all have to try to find meaning or purpose in life. Why are we here? Is anyone in charge, or is everything ultimately a game of chance?

British playwright Stoppard wrote this play in the 1960s and borrows his characters from Shakespeare's tragedy; they're a pair of courtiers with minor roles in Hamlet. Here, they're the stars, but very confused ones who are trying to make sense of their lives while all the big stuff happens elsewhere. While Hamlet, King Claudius and others pass in and out, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have mostly each other to pass the time, trying to figure out what's going on. Given APT's repertory setup, roles are played by the same actors in both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and this season's Hamlet, which runs through Oct. 4.

While full of silly fun, Stoppard's play is also a lot to process, raising big questions about art, death, chance, meaning, language -- you name it. I've mostly seen Haggard, director James Bohnen's Guildenstern, in lighter fare, like last season’s The Admirable Crichton, in which he played a pampered upper-class nitwit. Those same comic skills are employed here, but in a role that is meatier and more challenging.

Haggard's loose, guileless quality suits him well here; he's a terrific choice for this role. His counterpart is APT newcomer Ryan Imhoff as Rosencrantz. They have an ease together that befits the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern often forget which one of them is which.

If I had to present an award for scene-stealing, it would go to the terrific John Pribyl as the Player, the leader of a roving band of misfit actors whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter more than once. Pribyl energizes every scene he's in. The Player is comic, verging on the ridiculous, but Pribyl doesn't overplay him. Paradoxically, he has some of the wisest observations, like "Life is a gamble at terrible odds; if it was a bet, you wouldn't take it." His band of performers also get their humorous moments to shine, including Jack Dwyer as Alfred.

This is APT's first production of a Stoppard play, and, according to my recent interview of artistic director designate Brenda DeVita, the company hopes to do more. Judging from the audience's appreciative response to this funny yet challenging play Saturday night, that would be a smart choice indeed.

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