For a couple of guys for whom death is inevitable, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are having a pretty good time.
Prince Hamlet’s school chums are of course the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a comic riff on Shakespeare’s tragedy where minor characters in Hamlet are thrust in to the spotlight.
Critics offer high praise for the production. DC Theatre Scene’s Jennifer Clements declaration “confirming that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is “comedy at its finest.” The Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley sees Tom Stoppard’s debut script, “astonishing” after nearly 50 years. “It remains a youthful prank bursting with theatrical mischief and literary flair.” He adds that Pressley “packages this as a quirky, inquisitive, easygoing hang.”
Audiences want to be part of the witty word-play and existential questioning so much that the production has been extended to June 28, 2015.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with the director and two actors from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Folger Theatre.
What is it about Stoppard’s early and award-winning play that still appeals to audiences today? “That speaks to the genius of Stoppard, it’s universal,” said actor Adam Wesley Brown who plays Guildenstern.
“All the wordplay between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and even the Player is very pithy, very funny on a surface level. We could just let the language speak for itself but we take it to the next level. We want to look at the audience and ask them – what hits home more to you about death? Is it the idea that Guildenstern says all death is ‘is a man failing to reappear’? Or is it as the Player says someone is stabbed and they flail about with blood squirting and then they die? Which is more convincing?”
Posner, who has directed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead once before about a dozen years ago, expanded on that thought. “It feels like there is a kind of a crisis, a core difficulty of how we’re supposed to play this game of life and what’s controlling our actions. Other writers may ask these questions in more profound ways, but Stoppard’s combination of profundity and playfulness and even silliness is unparalleled. That’s why I have been drawn back to the play, and I think it has had a profound effect on so many people they keep coming back to this play over and over, all over the world.”
Speaking of the play’s humor, actor Ian Merrill Peakes acknowledged, “While there is a lot of froth, there is also and a lot of introspection and discovery and there are much more complex issues are being dealt with in this play. This play also has a lot of heart.”
Peakes appeared as Rosencrantz when Posner directed the show a more than a decade ago in Philadelphia. This time, he takes on the role of the Player. “I think he [Posner] and I are wiser now. We both have children and we’re 13 years further along. And 13 years later I hope I am a better actor.”
Peakes has nothing but praise for the young actors who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the Folger production, Romell Witherspoon and Adam Wesley Brown, respectively. “If you have two charming men like we do in our show, the audience is going to be really in to them and empathize and feel for them.”
Posner added that Witherspoon and Brown have the everyman quality that was a perfect fit for the characters. Like Jimmy Stewart or George Clooney “there’s permeability to their personality. It’s their humanity and likability. I really feel like I found those qualities in these two actors.”
Casting two men in their mid-20s made the most sense to Posner. He said no matter how old they are, it’s true that any two, “interesting and engaged people, who are really great actors could make it work. While that is true, it does feel, down to its core, to be a young man’s play. It’s perhaps that time when the question comes, in your 20s: here I am in life, what now?”
Casting younger actors fits with the fact, as Peakes pointed out, Stoppard himself was not yet 30 when he wrote the play. The original one-act play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear was written when the playwright was 27. Two years later the full-length Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead premiered the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, followed by a berth at the National Theatre of Great Britain and then Broadway.
The genius of Stoppard’s work – that mixture of humor and profundity Posner mentioned – is also a mingling of two theatrical styles. “He has taken the play of Hamlet and his concerns and shifted focus on to these two characters” who are minor, supporting characters in Shakespeare’s play, explained Posner.
But Stoppard doesn’t stop with Shakespeare. “This play has Samuel Beckett woven all through it,” Posner offered. “It owes more than a nod to Beckett, it owes its life to Beckett. You can’t work on this play and not think of Waiting for Godot, in particular.”
As a playwright and theatre artist, Posner has had many influences. “There are some other playwrights that I would credit as my greatest influences, but people like Beckett and Stoppard are in there as well, along with Luigi Pirandello.” Their appeal? “These writers look to the nature of theatrical performance and the relationship between our own lives and the lives that we present onstage. As for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard is engaging in those questions in really, really fun ways.”
The director and his actors all also agree that this production has been a dream to work on. Brown enthused, “There is a general consensus around our cast and crew and our whole production team that there is something a little magic about this show. Things have come together in such a quick and easy way.”
Peakes repeated the sentiment by saying, “We are very fortunate. The technical elements, the acting elements, the music – there’s a lot of live music. We are really blessed to have every single door open and there would be be someone who knows what they are doing. And they are passionate about the final result, fully invested.”
The ensemble nature of the production is also something they marveled at, according to Brown. “You are not going to be able to watch this show and say ‘Oh, so-and-so is responsible for this.’ Everybody’s got their hands in everything. It takes a village and this is mostly our shared village’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
The end result, added Peakes, is satisfying for both the company onstage and for the audiences. “You are going to get everything for your money – complexity, great comedy. You are going to be surprised and moved. Some people won’t want to come because they think Stoppard is too complex. It is complex, but it is also wildly accessible. It will engage you, which is why we do this, to share the experience with an audience. And you get to come to the Folger, one of the great theatre venues in the country. This is my tenth or eleventh show here and that stage is incredible.”