Grand Canyon University has launched a promising season of Shakespeare with a scintillating production of Tom Stoppard's contemporary classical romp Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The sensation of the 1967 season on Broadway--it won the New York Drama Critics' and Tony awards for Best Play--Stoppard's witty deconstruction of Hamlet ran for 420 performances. The darling of the New York critics, Stoppard followed this brilliant debut with a series of increasingly pretentious comedies. This past season, New York saw two Stoppard productions: Hapgood, a tantalizing thriller, and Arcadia, an arcane exercise in pastoral and historical sleuthdom, which is still running at Lincoln Center.

I have always thought Stoppard overrated, because with the exception of The Real Thing, his plays render approximately the same satisfaction as successfully completing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. He leaves his audience more impressed than moved. For sheer innovation, he has never surpassed the charm and delight of his first offering, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The play follows the lives of two of Shakespeare's most forgettable characters, dovetailing the entrances and exits of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia with the lives of these simple bozos, caught up in a momentous drama unfolding beyond their control.

The play is a metaphor of impotence that dramatizes a profound insight noted in King Lear: "We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys: they kill us for their sport." A contemporary audience may empathize, feeling helpless to alter, for example, events in Bosnia that could, ultimately, affect our very lives. The modern individual may feel paralyzed by this sense of helplessness.

This existential theme is perhaps a bit shallow as philosophy, but it offers the writer the opportunity to explore the tenuous relationship between irony and absurdity. Stoppard owes more than an incidental debt to Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead could be as easily titled Variations on a Theme by Beckett.

What saves the play from blatant plagiarism is the remarkably facile wit of the author. Expanding on the absurd games of Didi and Gogo as they wile away eternities, waiting for Godot to appear, Stoppard's inventive exercises give his two titular clowns an engaging maze of philosophic conundrums on which to expostulate.

Sitting amid a desolate, uneven landscape that strongly resembles a dung heap, two hapless nonentities pass the time by flipping a succession of coins. Each toss comes up heads, some 92 times in a row. As Guildenstern wryly notes, "There is an art to building up suspense." Pondering the meaning of this curious phenomenon, he reasons that perhaps the laws of probability have been suspended. The canvas of the play is this uncertain universe.

These two ragamuffins are royal courtiers who "have been sent for." By whom and for what are unclear, even to them. Dressed in indifferent Elizabethan traveling clothes, their favorite game is to rapid-fire questions at each other, disallowing rhetorical questions and repetitions. The first who blurts out a declarative statement loses a point; the questions alternate in a loquacious tennis match. These verbal aerobics demonstrate Stoppard's linguistic genius, and his sly ability to turn word play into philosophy.

Eventually, Claudius and Gertrude, accompanied by a retinue of courtiers, arrive from Shakespeare's play and dictate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's assignment. It seems that their college classmate, Hamlet, is being strange in his behavior. Their task is to "pluck out the heart" of his mystery.

In brief glimpses, we see the great tragedy unfolding offstage, as Hamlet silently, sorrowfully bids Ophelia adieu, or as he crosses the stage ripping "words, words, words" from a book. The running joke on Hamlet's soliloquies is that whenever Rosencrantz spies Hamlet approaching from the wings, Guildenstern always inquires: "What's he doing?" The inevitable reply is: "Talking." Incredulous, Guildenstern cries: "To himself?"

Certainly, to appreciate fully Stoppard's juggling of the classics, it helps to be familiar with both Hamlet and Godot. But the beauty of the play is that it works as an intellectual vaudeville, and Stoppard's cerebral pyrotechnics are in themselves a delight to experience. Apart from the humor and insight being relatively sophomoric, the only thing to complain of is the length. The play runs two hours and 40 minutes, rather long by today's standards, despite Stoppard's proficiency for keeping all those puns in the air.

Claude N. Pensis has adroitly staged the antics on Paul B. Bridgeman's brilliantly empty (if precarious) setting. The entire stage is covered in reddish-brown soil and rocks that feature mounds and depressions utterly convincing as a vacant lot. Ingeniously, a couple of poles can be inserted by the actors into the ground, and when attached to each other with a rope, provide a sort of swing on which the actors can sit. Above the barren landscape are suspended two giant mobiles composed of huge parchment (or sails?) that aimlessly turn against the black velvet background. The third act takes place on a ship, where the addition of apparently bottomless barrels provide limitless room for stowaways. The costumes by Elizabeth A. Yoder are also witty and appropriate for a first-rate physical production.

Director Pensis has been enormously aided by the captivating performances of his two lead actors. Michael J. Kary is the simple-minded buffoon, who cheerily addresses each turn of fate with good-humored acceptance. Scott G. Campbell is the uneasy intellectual, who senses the threatening implications of their journey toward death, and puzzles over each ominous clue. The two stars play off each other expertly, and apart from Stoppard's linguistic wizardry, they are the main reason to see the show.

Also effective is Gordon E. Williford as the Player, in a turn every bit as hammy and vulgar as the part demands. Atom Albany leads the mostly silent troupe of tragedians in amiably goofy pantomime.

The great flaw in the production is that the characters from Shakespeare are played with excessive theatrical phoniness, perhaps a directorial misconception. I'll leave them unnamed, except to note that James Adams is inept as Hamlet. Fortunately, the lead characters in Shakespeare's play are only the bit players in Stoppard's, so we spend very little time gnawing our knuckles with horror at the wooden deliveries.

Last season, Grand Canyon University showed that it has one of the finest theatre departments in the Valley, but the talent was consistently burdened by infelicitous choices of material. This year, the season promises to be an adventurous journey for the subscriber, and a pretty good bet for evenings of stimulating theatre. Certainly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a rousing start.

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Marshall W. Mason