This Play Burns Brain Calories – Leah Doz
Tom Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when he was about 26, which means I’ve got about two years to come up with something just as brilliant… I’m jealous…
This play’s knack for argument, its vocabulary, wit, and various allusions (ie: Lot’s wife—maybe look that one up before seeing the play? I had to.) could only have been written by someone prodigal, but what makes the play so extra special is that, despite its intelligence, which at first intimidated me, it is chock-full of HILARITY. In reading Stoppard’s preface to the play, he is a man with a lot of heart whose intelligence is not elitist or alienating, but serves to express the existential questions in all of us: the everyman; hence, his fascination with laypersons R&G—his intelligence is profoundly inclusive, which is rare and inspiring… especially considering his age when he wrote the play. A woman I admire put it like this: “the hilarity makes the play accessible… and moving”. It’s like Beckett: absurd, ponderous, and “GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME!!?!?!?!?!”, but even funnier and rooted in a recognizable Elizabethan story: Hamlet.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern charm us with their existential befuddlement and their plight of trying to remember the very instructions that give them their singular purpose. It’s very moving… but to get to that place, our director Joe Ziegler demands we ask any and every question (“there are no stupid questions” is his gentle reminder) to make sure we understand each line of the text as an active element of the story. None of the characters’ arguments are enigmatic, lofty, or general, even if they appear as such at first glance. I think the success of the play hinges on how specific we make the text serve the puzzle pieces that R&G are connecting. For an actor, the exercise of taking what appears to be pensive or even cerebral and making it specific, active, and driven by need is an essential workout, and this play is the mother-lode of such workouts. This play burns brain calories. Its intelligence has the capacity to be equally full of heart and universal understanding: the everyman’s quest to find his own freewill amidst a predetermined fate… something to laugh and cry about.
Since Shakespeare’s Hamlet is happening offstage within the play and makes its way onstage in pivotal scenes that lead R&G to their next task and remind us of the timeline Stoppard works with, cast members have their noses buried in Hamlet on the sidelines of the rehearsal floor. Essentially, we are keeping two plays alive at once, which can be best described by Kenneth Welsh’s Player: “every exit being an entrance somewhere else”. Since every exit is an entrance somewhere else in this play, we see disturbing scenes from Hamlet that are only ever described as having happened offstage in Hamlet—perhaps every Hamlet-fanatic’s dream come true. And then of course, there’s doing ALL of this, IN-THE-ROUND with the audience on all four sides of us. Piece of cake.
Ted and Jordan (playing R&G) spend an hour each morning doing line-runs to master the lightning-speed tennis-ball match dialogue between the two characters who play on each other’s words so often that they read like the left and right sides of the brain transmitting sensory information so fast they inevitably glitch, crossing wires get crossed so often it’s side-splitting. This will be one of those plays that will generate that awe-struck question “How did you remember all those lines?” at every talkback. Magic.
Photos by Nathan Kelly