Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very much alive in director Matthew Gorman’s  rendition of Tom Stoppard’s celebrated existentialist metadrama, Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This Hart House production is a fast-paced, witty delight, featuring a charming cast, a hilarious and complex script, and simple set design.

The play builds upon the original roles of its two title characters, who in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are instucted by King Claudius with discovering the source of Hamlet’s madness, and later, delivering him into the English King’s hands. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to understand their situation, unable to recall their past and confused by their circumstances. For much of the play, the two are alone on stage, pondering their situation, making poignant philosophical statements and struggling to connect them to their own experiences, or just passing the time by playing games with coins until a new player enters.

Jim Armstrong and Andrew Knowlton deftly take on the play’s title roles. While the dialogue in Stoppard’s play has the potential to be hefty and overwrought, Armstrong and Knowlton dance through their lines, not letting the audience miss a laugh. Their chemistry is enchanting as they comfort one another, get frustrated with each other, contemplate free will, fate, and chance, and comically express their exasperation about the sheer incomprehensibility of both Hamlet and the world around them.

The rest of the cast also shines. Benjamin Muir delivers a hilariously melodramatic performance as Hamlet, prancing across the stage with a drunken, exaggerated stagger. His histrionic gestures and tone lovingly poke fun at Shakespeare’s original drama while exacerbating the confused state of the play’s title characters through his blatant absurdity. As he stumbles off stage theatrically, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turn to one another with wide eyes and comment on his craziness, a satisfying and hilarious nod to the thoughts of the audience.

The actors playing other characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet also present delightfully melodramatic performances, particularly Brenna Stewart, whose sarcastic Ophelia garners lots of laughs.

Throughout the course of the play, Rosencratz and Guildenstern also encounter the Player, played by David Tripp, and his troupe of traveling actors, who are also prostitutes. The group, presenting overdramatic, mimed scenes at the request of the Player, are a very entertaining collective. The Player himself is a very intriguing character, who simultaneously seems to be a source of knowledge and understanding in the mixed up world of the play while remaining aloof and comic in his role as a director and a pimp.

In addition to its solid cast, the Hart House production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern succeeds in its careful staging of the play’s meta-theatrical moments. Characters often appear to notice, or even directly address the audience. At one point during the play, for example, Rosencratz calls out, “FIRE!”, in order to inwdicate that a fire has broken out in the theatre, rather than onstage. In another scene, Guildenstern plays with the shadow of his hand in a spotlight as Rosencratz kicks a stage light. Director Matthew Gorman handles these moments dexterously, allowing members of the audience to partake in the philosophical questioning of the play without overwhelming them with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern‘s complexities.

Following three engaging acts, the finale of the play is gratifying and thought-provoking. Blessed with a brilliant script and complimented by masterful acting, direction, and design, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a smashing start to Hart House Theatre’s 2012–2013 season.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs until October 6. Student tickets $15, $10 on Wednesdays.