Turn Hamlet, with all its ponderous existentialism, inside out and you have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The three-act play by Tom Stoppard, first staged in 1966, has its way with the pronouncements of Shakespeare, making it a diverting evening of theater and an edgy companion to The Old Globe's 2013 summer festival, which also includes A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice.
For those who haven't seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, familiarity with Hamlet is crucial. That not everyone in the crowd is will be apparent when you notice that some theatergoers are laughing while others are not. But enjoying Rosencrantz mostly requires a willing acceptance of the absurd and an appreciation for metatheater—the play within the play.
If that all sounds like too much work, fear not. The comic performances by Jay Whittaker and John Lavelle (it's never totally clear who's Rosencrantz and who's Guildenstern) are spiced with keen physicality, priceless double takes and a rhythmic banter that's damned near Abbott and Costello. Whether turning over coins (heads or tails?) to test the laws of probability, as they do in the first scene, or questioning the inevitability of death sans their friend Hamlet's melancholy, this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make a delightful, complementary pair.
Besides tossing coins and ruminating, R&G are witness to (and at times participants in) scenes from Hamlet, with, notably, Lucas Hall as the Prince of Denmark and Triney Sandoval bellowing as the nervous King Claudius. On hand during these scenes to pierce the theatrical fourth wall is a camera crew complete with boom microphone, capturing the action. It's no wonder that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have little clue about what the hell is going on around them, why they're where they are and what their role in the scheme of things is supposed to be.
A troupe of Tragedians, led by The Player (the stentorian Sherman Howard), teases our heroes throughout, as if they need any further messing with their heads.
For a three-act play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead unfolds efficiently. With director Adrian Noble at the helm, the action never wanes. It runs through Sept. 26 at The Old Globe Theatre. $29 and up. oldglobe.org
A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Musical: It's Shakespeare's classic comedy in the forest, but with pop music from the 1960s. Presented by Intrepid Shakespeare Company, it opens July 11 at San Dieguito Academy Performing Arts Centre in Encinitas. intrepidshakespeare.com
Freedom of Speech: Eliza Jane Schneider plays 34 characters in her own one-woman show, which chronicles her travels around the United States in an old ambulance. Presented by Moxie Theatre, it opens July 11 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. moxietheatre.com
It's Just Sex: Three couples get together for some drinks, and, wouldn't you know it, the inevitable spouse swapping ensues. Opens July 12 at On- Stage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
Out on a Limb: A performance of three one-act plays by emerging San Diego playwrights: Tim West's Blackout at Battery Cliff, Emily Sperling's Mermaids and Steven Oberman's A Slip from Reality. Runs July 12 through 14 and 19 through 21 at Scripps Ranch Theatre. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Perfect Wedding: Dude wakes up on the morning of his wedding with a hot chick lying next to him, and the bride shows up. But he and his best man have a plan. Opens July 13 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
The Rainmaker: A conman arrives at a Depression-era ranch where the cattle are dying and the farmer's daughter's hopes of finding a husband are fading. Opens July 13 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Sideways: Two middle-aged guys, one who's about to be married, head to Santa Barbara wine country and find trouble. Opens July 16 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
Suds: The Musical: The story of a young woman looking for love in a Laundromat frames a soundtrack of '60s hits. Opens July 12 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
In the Heat of the Night: Ion Theatre Company closes its seventh season with the theatrical version of the 1965 novel, 1968 movie and 1988-1992 TV series about racism and criminal justice in the South. Through July 13 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
South Pacific: Parallel love stories unfold against a World War II backdrop, but it's the classic songs that carry this musical. Through July 13 at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista. moonlightstage.com
A Bench in the Sun: Two elderly men join forces with a former actress to save their retirement home. Through July 21 at Broadway Theatre in Vista. broadwayvista.com
Tribes: A deaf man raised in a hearing family meets a woman who was raised by deaf parents and is going deaf herself. Through July 21 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.com
Carnival: An orphan named Lili joins the circus and becomes the object of an unhappy puppeteer's affection. Through Aug. 4 at Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Company: A musical organized around a series of vignettes that explore the relationships between an unmarried 35-year-old man and his 10 coupled-off friends. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it runs though Aug. 18 at The Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
miXtape: Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb's Players Theatre, it runs through Sept. 1 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown. lambsplayers.org
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: Tom Stoppard's existentialist play turns two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet into lead characters. Through Sept. 26 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare's play, about a man who borrows money to court a woman, gave us the terms "shylock" and "a pound of flesh." Through Sept. 28 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Greek forest is alive with fairies, magic potions and the pursuit of love in the opener of The Old Globe's summer Shakespeare Festival. Through Sept. 29 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net