Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
To say that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is a memorable journey is an understatement.
In the existentialist tragicomedy based on minor characters from "Hamlet," plays break out in the middle of the wilderness, heads over tails always wins, and pirates exist.
It was only right that the Theatre Department open the spring semester with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” considering that the fall semester opened with “Hamlet.”
Playwright Tom Stoppard structured the play as the inverse of "Hamlet," in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the focus and Hamlet plays a minor role.
As a contrast to the cold and dark set of “Hamlet,” this play is set in the wilderness and is surrounded by warm and earthy tones.
The titular characters have been summoned to Denmark by the King and meet a ragtag group of players along the way. Their purpose: to deliver Hamlet’s fate through a letter embossed with the King’s wax seal, though they unknowingly are destined for an even more chilling and inescapable ending.
It is Claude Pensis’ third time to direct “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," having first helmed the production as a first-time director when he was a junior in college. Over time, his understanding of the play has changed. It's as if he is reading the script with new eyes each time.
Still, the meaning of the play has never changed.
The struggle and desperation of understanding the complexities of life is a universal reality humankind can relate to, he said, and ultimately, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is a reminder of what it is to be human.
“In college, I felt petrified because the future was so large and getting so large, and to a degree, that’s them. There’s a certain amount of fear and anxiety about their future, about their purpose and who they are. What I want people to take away is that these are two incredibly human people who don’t wholly represent any of us, but there's a part of them that we all have in common.”
Their desperation to break their own destiny reflects humanity’s struggle to find meaning and purpose. The duo weighs their mortality while realizing, by running away from their fate, they are also running toward their death.
Stoppard tells the story, not by reinventing Shakespeare’s narrative, but by embracing what little information the audience is given.
Playing characters with little to no background can be a difficult task, but to Nick Boisvert and Daniella Brown, who were double cast as Guildenstern, that allowed them the freedom to stray away from who Shakespeare wanted them to be.
“The whole premise of the show is that the only background that these characters have is the little paragraph Shakespeare wrote for them,” said Boisvert. “There is next to no information about these characters' history so they can be whoever we want them to be.”
Brown feels the same.
“I personally think that it is really cool to be a woman playing a male role,” she said. “It sheds a new light onto these characters because it makes it more accessible to a wider range of people. These aren’t just men that relate to these problems — fear of uncertainty and not knowing what comes next is universal. It’s nice to know we don’t have to stay within those bounds in theatre."
Although deviating from Stoppard and Shakespeare’s original script, Brown embraces her perspective as a woman and allows it to create more depth in Guildenstern’s character. She says her bond with Rosencrantz feels more like an older sister dynamic than a friendship.
“I think that my relationship with Rosencrantz, as a female, that some of that anger can come out as frustration rather than an outburst. It’s interesting because they are meant to be two men, so it feels like I am straying from the intended perspective of the playwright. I can’t change the fact that I am a woman, but I love what I bring to the character.”
Christian Shepherd, who is cast as The Player (another role double cast with Kenzie Huether), portrays an eccentric man who is enthralled by anything related to theatre. Stoppard uses the character, another minor character taken from "Hamlet," as a voice of certainty in a world plagued by confusion.
The Player leads a troupe of actors who try to reveal Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fate to them through strategic and flamboyant plays.
“My role’s whole purpose is to let them know that they are going to die,” said Shepherd. “The Player accomplishes his goal, but now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have to live with that reality. It’s a bittersweet feeling I get with my character.”
In preparation for wardrobe, costume designer Nola Yergen performed the majority of her research through countless searches on Pinterest and derived inspiration from popular TV shows and games. She says the outcome has turned out to be some of her favorite pieces she has ever made.
Yergen chose a warm color palette that complements the sunset in the background, from vibrant sunburst oranges to reds that have a heightened vibrancy because of the array of fabrics Yergen chose, including velvets, leather and linens.
“It’s inspired by the medieval era and the Renaissance era, but it’s also inspired by 'Game of Thrones' and Dungeons and Dragons,” said Yergen. “It has more of a fantasy element, which works well for the play because it’s more of that absurdist fantasy.”
Although “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” tackles heavy topics, it also is filled with comedic undertones. Stoppard embraces the light and dark essences of life.
The audience, on the one hand, can expect to laugh, as the script is filled with comedic one-liners and bickering between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that showcases their bond. But attendees also can expect to be enthralled by the dramatic elements, too.
“It is a tragicomedy. Parts of it are very funny, with lots of wordplay and circumstances. The first time I directed it as more as a comedy, the second time was more of a balance between the two, whereas this time is more on the heavier side as I get closer to the other end of life,” said Pensis. “I would call it a tragicomedy, but it’s very funny and poignant at times.”
And it's about taking non-descript characters and making them remarkable.
Contact staff writer Lydia P. Robles at 602-639-7665 or [email protected]
IF YOU GO:
What: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"
Where: Ethington Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb 2-5 and Feb. 10-12
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