Life is a confounding riddle, death is an ominous question mark, our fates are utterly random, and we’re all alone in the cosmos. What can you do but laugh?
So that’s what Tom Stoppard does, and that’s what he makes the rest of us do as well, in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.’’
In a splendidly executed Huntington Theatre Company production of Stoppard’s breakthrough 1967 play, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’’ retains its power as a breathtakingly audacious intellectual gambit. Crucially, director Peter DuBois and his superb cast do full justice to the knotty philosophical condundrums, the humor, and the subtle aura of dread that suffuse “R&G’’ (as we shall henceforth call it, to forestall carpal tunnel syndrome in your humble typist).
Existential angst has seldom been funnier — but a genuine chill is ever-present, too, just under all those laughs. As it happens, a fellow who would seem to have cornered the market on existential angst, Hamlet by name, is the elusive quarry of the hapless courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You may recall them as a pair of minor characters from “Hamlet’’ whose deaths are dismissively tossed off in a single line near the end of Shakespeare’s play.
Having foregrounded that obscure duo as his protagonists, Stoppard then proceeds to construct from their bewildered wanderings an oblique and brilliant meditation on mortality, eternity, and those permeable, Pirandellian boundaries between theater and reality, between play-acting and being.
Stumbling through the castle at Elsinore, overhearing scenes from “Hamlet’’ — and sometimes being suddenly thrust into the middle of them, forced to converse with Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, or the prince himself — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never quite understand what is going on. They can’t figure out why they’ve been summoned to Elsinore (a fateful, no-turning-back moment that looms larger and larger as they are drawn into palace intrigue and danger) or where they fit into the story of the melancholy Dane and his mixed-up family, or how they feature in the larger scheme of things.
As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively, Alex Hurt and Jeremy Webb are first-rate. Hurt’s Rosencrantz is the more befuddled of the two, with a Stan Laurel-like gentleness of spirit, while Webb’s Guildenstern is the more verbally aggressive, determined to unlock the puzzle and find an escape from their caught-between-two-worlds dilemma. (A running joke of “R&G’’ is that no one else in the play, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves, can remember which is which.)
Both Hurt and Webb beautifully navigate the challenging rhythms of Stoppardian dialogue, which is an intricate blend of seeming non sequiturs, lightning-fast aperçus, throwaway jokes, and gnomic insights that threaten to make your head explode. Or, sometimes, all four in one, as when Rosencrantz muses: “Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end?’’
“R&G’s’’ feast of wit gains an extra treat in the person of the great Will LeBow, appearing to have the time of his life as the Player, a faintly sinister rapscallion who heads an itinerant theater troupe that plays key roles both in “Hamlet’’ and in “R&G.’’ Brian Lee Huynh is an amusingly egocentric Hamlet, and Meaghan Leathers is equally funny as an Ophelia whose attitude seems to be: Hey, why walk when you can twirl?
The roster of supporting actors comprises a who’s-who of Boston acting talent, enjoyable to watch even though “R&G’’ doesn’t really give them enough to do: Melinda Lopez as Gertrude, Ed Hoopman as Claudius, Ken Cheeseman as Polonius, Omar Robinson as Horatio, and the likes of Laura Latreille, Dale Place, Kadahj Bennett, Michael Underhill, and Marc Pierre in various roles.
It’s not that Stoppard is trying to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare. Or out-Beckett Beckett, for that matter, although the spectacle of two baffled figures aimlessly traveling through an inscrutable universe inevitably brings to mind “Waiting for Godot,’’ as does the series of coin-tosses that opens “R&G.’’ (It’s always heads, time after time after time, a repetitive activity, like waiting for someone who will never come, that stretches toward infinity.) But the kind of questions those two playwriting giants pose are the same ones that preoccupy Stoppard.
At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in a game of rapid-fire queries, hitting them back and forth like shuttlecocks. Guildenstern demands: “What does it all add up to?’’ And then: “Is there a God?’’ And then, seizing Rosencrantz roughly and shouting directly in his face: “Who do you think you are?’’
Haunting in their unanswerability, the questions hang in the air like echoes of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?’’ What Stoppard seems to be saying is: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are absurd, they are lost, and they are us. Laugh at that, if you dare.
ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
Play by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through Oct. 20. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org