Can a coin flip turn up heads hundreds, even thousands of times in a row?
Unlikely, yes. But probable? Of course.
The beginning action of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” offers something that William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” where we first meet the two schoolfellows of the melancholy Dane, does not.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bit characters in the original tragedy, fellows who follow the orders of King Claudius to the letter. They are interchangeable, neither having a distinct or unique voice. They are pawns, used for backstabbing Hamlet by the King, and used for Hamlet to exact his revenge for their disloyalty.
But in Stoppard’s play, written in the mid 1960’s, they are different. Very different. As evidenced by the coin flipping. While Rosencrantz finds himself on the winning side of the flipping, overjoyed by a near full bag of coins, Guildenstern finds more alarm and concern. Is he losing because he has a self-defeating prophecy? Is there something at work in the clouds?
Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company’s newest production is a watershed moment for its members. With their opening of Stoppard’s play, running from April 9th to the 24th at Theatre on San Pedro Square in Downtown San Jose, this marks the first non-Shakespeare production in the company’s 12-year history. Shady Shakespeare has a firm establishment on the South Bay’s Bard productions, performing two free shows in repertory every summer in Sanborn Park just outside of Saratoga.
Rosencrantz (Crawford) and Guildenstern (Schott) do lots of interesting things to
pass the time. Photo by Brent Fafeita
To know about this company is to know Dinna Myers. She is the managing director, one of the company’s founders, and the show’s director. Tackling a piece written by Stoppard, one of the most important playwrights in theatre history as well as one of the greatest writers of plays about Shakespeare’s characters, is quite the challenge for the company’s first play outside of the canon.
“Stoppard has very English sensibilities. There are certain things about British comedy that are not instinctive to American actors,” said Myers. “The primary challenge is that it is an existentialist play. It has to be presented as funny and engaging; the audience can’t just sit there and be smacked around with a message.”
The play takes place where Hamlet does not. While Hamlet is feigning his madness to come up with a plan to kill his uncle, moving through the castle like a wild boar, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sit idly out of the view of Hamlet’s characters, passing time with competitions, playing the game of questions, or impersonating others. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue to tackle the existentialism in their world, trying to find their identity and purpose in a vast universe.
Myers admits that there is not a lot to learn about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from reading the play “Hamlet.” But there is something that stands out.
“What is particularly telling is that there’s a reason Claudius sends for them – he knows they have no moral character,” said Myers. “Horatio is true to Hamlet, and the King knows that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are worms.”
Because of the dialogue that purposely does not always flow, a dialogue that’s full of circular logic and non-sequiturs, the degree of difficulty for the actors is somewhere between a 10 and infinity.
Rosencrantz (Crawford) stands and rails while Guildenstern
(Schott) sits and ponders. Photo by Brent Fafeita
Spencer Crawford, playing Rosencrantz, said that getting the timing right has been the most difficult aspect of developing the character. “The play is so much about the delivery of lines and timing,” said Crawford. “It has been a lot of practice coordinating the physicality and timing. All of that put together makes it such a challenging show to pull off.”
Mikey Schott makes up the second half of the tandem. While Rosencrantz has been described by Myers as the jock, she also notes that Guildenstern is the quirky intellectual. “If they were in high school together, they would have never been friends,” said Myers.
Schott has enjoyed the challenges that come with Guildenstern. Guildenstern tends to offer his frustration at the situations that the characters find themselves in, and Schott has appreciated his honest approach to the world. “Guildenstern is the most real character that there is, very wry with a dry sense of humor and he likes to hear himself speak,” said Schott. “He lives in a world that is abstract and does not do very well with that, but that’s the world he is thrown into.”
Hamlet has long been one of the most maddening characters in Shakespeare. With more than 1500 lines, the most by any character in a single play, there is plenty to analyze. Hundreds of thousands of productions, from the traditional to the anachronistic, have been mounted throughout the world. In Stoppard’s work, there is no end to the fun and folly that he has at the expense of the young prince. Myers has worked hard to see to it that Shady’s production features all of the fun stuff.
“This play will appeal to people in the theatre profession,” said Myers. “It’s an allegory, full of jokes for us and exceptionally funny for people who are in our industry.”
EXAMINE IT FOR YOURSELF
The Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company presents “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Dinna Myers
Fridays – Sundays, April 9th to 24th
All performances are held at Theatre on San Pedro Square, 29 North San Pedro Street, San Jose
Tickets range from $20 to $25
For contact information or to purchase tickets, contact Shady Shakespeare’s official website here
Email David John Chavez at [email protected]
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