(L to R) Frank Robersts (Rosencrantz), Paul Richter (Guildenstern) and Nathan Rice (The Player) from the Lakewood Playhouse Production of "R

(L to R) Frank Robersts (Rosencrantz), Paul Richter (Guildenstern) and Nathan Rice (The Player) from the Lakewood Playhouse Production of "ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD"

Tim Johnston (used by permission of Tim Johnston and Lakewood Playhouse)

Friday night, Lakewood Playhouse staged "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" to a truly appreciative Opening Night crowd. The show, featuring two minor characters from "Hamlet" wondering what their purpose in life is all about, is preceded by "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet." The pre-show serves to catch the audience up on Shakespeare's classic, warming them up for the existential comedy-angst to follow. In all, it is a long, but rewarding, night at the theater.

A charming signature of Lakewood Playhouse is its delight in exercising its inner Monty Python. The British comedy troupe was at its best when under full throttle, staging lengthy classics in just a few minutes. Earlier this season, LPH used this same technique as it concocted a reason to recap the first act of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." The rewind/fast forward-faster forward bit was mildly amusing in "Hound." It was put to much better use Friday night. The crowd howled in delight as Shakespeare's tragedy was played as a frenetic comedy. The whole cast of "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet" did well, and standing out was Ben Stahl.

Mr. Stahl appeared last year in two dramas for Lakewood Playhouse. He was George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," and Chater in "Arcadia." He was good in those shows, but truly hit his stride in Tacoma Little Theatre's production of Steve Martin's "The Underpants." Ben Stahl is a fine actor with a true gift for comedy. He didn't have a lot to do during R and G Are Dead, but he was a big part of the successful pre-show.

Directed by Beau M. K. Prichard, the main show was successful largely due to the efforts of the titular characters. Frank Roberts and Paul Richter work marvelously together. The stage chemistry almost couldn't be more well-defined. One can imagine the two gentlemen vacationing together with their families. Mr. Roberts' Rosencrantz is the more down-to-Earth. Mr. Richter's Guildenstern wonders what this trip around the sun is all about, anyway. Together they discover what they don't know about life, love, Zen, pre-destination, and the betrayal of a good friend. These two young actors made the Lakewood stage their own over the course of the evening.

Playing the character known simply as "The Player" Nathan Rice was another standout. Comedy, drama, melodrama, and how to hit a stage mark can be taught.  Mr. Rice has learned those techniques well. What can't be taught (though it can be refined) is the God-given voice of the orator. Nathan Rice has the pipes of the truly blessed. In this show, he provides the tendrils that move the story along. His performance is superb. His hat is a costuming success, as well.

Dylan Twiner's performance as Hamlet is well-played on more than one level. He captures the Danish Prince's bipolar tendencies nicely and performs the physicality of the role with a real verve. He leaps about the stage during both the pre-show and the main show with the alacrity of the young and fit. Twenty years from now he could break a hip playing this role. Not the case Opening Night. His time on stage (surprisingly short in the second half) was excellent. 

Also excellent were the technical and setting aspects of the show. It required lighting cues both fast and intricate. Aaron Mohs-Hale's lighting design and follow-through were crisp and on point. The set appears spare at first glance, but that is a mischaracterization. Everything on stage worked and was necessary to the tenor and success of the show. Blake R. York's vision was true and accurate.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" works as a dramatic comedy, as well as a comic tragedy. Deep truths are discussed. Much mugging and overacting take place. That isn't a criticism. To the contrary. Any play about, literally, a little ham is ripe for stage excess. This troupe wins the night with their fine ensemble performance. Theatergoers should buy tickets anon. Forsooth, this show will sell out.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" plus "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet" continues at Lakewood Playhouse through May 7. Friday and Saturday shows have an 8 p.m. curtain. Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets are available from the Lakewood Playhouse ticketing page, or by calling 253-588-0042.