“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard dives deep into the world of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by focusing on the time two minor characters spend offstage.
“It’s like ‘The Lion King 1 ½’ for ‘Hamlet,’” says Garret Sauer, a freshman actor in the production.
Major characters from the play like Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude play minor roles in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” making way for existential discussion between the formerly minor characters. The MU Theatre department put on the show this past weekend.
“One of the ways it is very interesting is ‘are we the playwrights of our own lives?’ or is there a larger play going on and we’re just playing a role in it?” director and professor Suzanne Burgoyne says.
The two leads, played by Michael Bayler and Dylan Bainter, are called in and pushed into being spies for the king, but very little of the running time is actually devoted to the plot of “Hamlet.”
“We’re playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they are written: as clowns, as vaudevillians, as actors,” Burgoyne says.
During one of the first rehearsals, Burgoyne had the two watch and dissect “Who’s on First?”, the famous comedy sketch by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
In a disconnect from the historical setting of “Hamlet,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wear bowler hats to aid in their slapstick humor that could easily take place in early 20th century U.S.
The vaudeville connection comes from “Waiting for Godot,” an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett often referenced in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”
Absurdism is a type of fiction that tries to show what happens when human existence lacks meaning. Repetitive action persists, and the logical makes way for the irrational.
“These characters are not people; they are characters,” Burgoyne says. “We couldn’t really do some of the work I do with a more realistic play, where we do character biographies, for instance.”
During the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern frequently forget their purpose in the action, their lives before the play started and even their own names.
In the theatre department’s production, Burgoyne has chosen to emphasize the metatheatre aspects of the play, or the places where “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” acknowledges that is is a piece of theatre.
“We spend a lot of time talking to the audience, or we’ll take some of our lines and say them to the audience as if they are actually there in the moment of the play,” Bayler says.
The Players, a troupe of actors within the play, from “Hamlet” also play a larger role in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” Similarly to Shakespeare’s original work, they perform a play within a play demonstrating the plot that will soon follow.
This time, however, the story they show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern includes an image parallel to their own deaths. The pair is unable to recognize the consequences of the path that they are on and dismiss the Players’ prediction.
“They just don’t really know what’s going on, and that’s, I think, a metatheatrical metaphor for the lives of people in which wars are mediatized and we watch terrorism on television,” Burgoyne says. “We say to ourselves: ‘Oh, we’re just little people; we can’t change things. We don’t have any control over this larger play we are in.’”