Hollywood has no bones about making film franchise spinoffs with minor characters from earlier blockbusters. Just look at how DreamWorks Animation let the cat out of the bag with "Puss in Boots" from "Shrek 2," or how "Minions" were spawned from Universal Pictures' "Despicable Me" movies.
Yet, the brilliant British playwright Tom Stoppard ("Arcadia," "Shakespeare in Love") arguably pioneered the minor character spinoff with his career-launching hit "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead." Stoppard's Tony Award-winning comedy inspired by Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is not only receiving a 50th anniversary staging locally at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, but also in London where "Harry Potter" film star Daniel Radcliffe is currently in rehearsals for a major revival at the Old Vic.
"Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead"★ ★ ½
Location: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through March 9; Also noon Tuesday, Feb. 28.
Running time: 2½ hours with two intermissions
Parking: Free adjacent parking garage and select street parking
Rating: For teens and older; references to prostitution
As the title suggests, Stoppard's absurdist and existential play is comically centered around two of the more inconsequential and oddly named characters from "Hamlet." In Shakespeare's tragedy, Rosencrantz (David Stobbe) and Guildenstern (Aurora Real De Asua) are former schoolmates of Prince Hamlet (Ryan J. Duncan) who meet an unhappy end after they're asked by Denmark's deceitful King Claudius (Douglas Bean) to spy on his melancholy nephew.
In Stoppard's comic spinoff, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be seen more as Shakespearean cousins to the two tramps in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Pondering their uncertain situation as pawns in a royal chess match for power, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern toss coins to test mathematical notions of probability, argue over concepts of fate versus self-determination and share banter with a morally questionable traveling troupe of down-on-their-luck "Tragedians" (also minor characters in "Hamlet").
With so many brainy concepts, Shakespearean dialogue and moments of slapstick comedy, "Rosencrantz ..." is a producing and acting challenge for any theater company. It can also be a test for audiences who might not know the plot basics and absurdities of "Hamlet" (yes, there is an offstage pirate battle mentioned in Shakespeare's original that Stoppard zanily places center stage).
Josh Sobel, artistic director of Chicago's itinerant Haven Theatre, helms a mostly sturdy production. Sobel throws in a logical comical gender switch by casting De Asua as the very verbose Guildenstern and Stobbe as the not-so-bright Rosencrantz.
Asua and Stobbe make an affable leading pair, though they don't quite have the ingrained comic rhythms of an experienced vaudevillian team to keep Stoppard's comedy fully fizzing along. Sobel also questionably steers Chris Walsh as The Player to be more gruff than grandiloquent, while Adam Liston's nautical unit set design foreshadows Act III too obviously.
The Metropolis deserves kudos for taking a risk in ambitiously programming "Rosencrantz ..." Yet, the bet doesn't fully pay off even though it's clear that everyone working on the comedy is in awe of its inherent and mischievous genius.