Backstage with ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’

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(Host) For the past several years, the Weston Playhouse has taken its fall production on tour around Vermont and throughout New England. This year’s play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” is a comic takeoff on a familiar Shakespearean tragedy.

VPR’s Susan Keese went backstage for a look at Hamlet through the eyes of a couple of bit players.

(Keese) Imagine waking up one day in the middle of someone else’s story. That’s what happens to the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

In Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters. They’re college chums of Hamlet’s, called in by King Claudius. He’s the usurping uncle who’s killed Hamlet’s father and married Hamlet’s mother, the queen. Claudius hopes to use the two to find out whether Hamlet suspects anything. Most of the action occurs without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern onstage.

As Stoppard’s play opens, they’re literally in the dark, waiting for whatever’s supposed to happen that might involve them.

(Steve Stettler) “I see this play as taking place in a void.”

(Keese) Steve Stettler is Weston’s producing director and the director of this play. He says the production’s mostly black stage set helps convey the notion that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are literally nowhere most of the time.

The production’s original music keeps coming back to the futile coin toss game the characters play, in which the coin always comes up heads.

(Stettler) “You want a sense that the two main characters are in the midst of something and suddenly they get swept up in somebody else’s story and they never know when it’s coming in , where it’s coming from, where it’s going to go , whether they want to be a part of it or just kind of tolerate the moment until they can get back to something they think they understand.”

(Keese) Every so often the drama Hamlet descends on them from one direction or another. Hamlet walks by looking agitated. The friends remark, as they do in Shakespeare’s play, that he’s not himself. But how do they know what he was like?

Periodically the king and queen parade in with their retinue. Early on Claudius asks the two to find out what’s eating Hamlet. Back in limbo, they try to make sense of the clues they’ve been given.

(Rosencrantz) “We cheer him up, find out what’s the matter.”
(Guildenstern) “Exactly, it’s a matter of asking the right questions and giving away as little as we can. It’s a game!
(Rosencrantz) “And then we can go?”
(Guildenstern) “And receive such thanks as fits a king’s remembrance.”
(Rosencrantz) “I like the sound of that! What do you think she means by remembrance?”
(Guildenstern) “He doesn’t forget his friends.”
(Rosencrantz) “Would you care to estimate?”
(Guildenstern) “Difficult to say really. Some kings tend to be amnesiac, and the others, I suppose the opposite, whatever that is. Elephantine?”
(Rosencrantz) “Yes but not how long, how much?”
(Guildenstern) “Retentive! He’s a very retentive king, a royal retainer!”

(Keese) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by Mike Crane and Eric Altheide. Both are recent graduates of NYU’s master’s program in theater.

Stettler says he had them watch a lot of funny movies when they started rehearsing. He says the characters are in the tradition of comic duos like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello.

(Stettler) “And some of the scenes in which the two of them are trying to decipher what is happening are very reminiscent, for example of the famous ‘Who’s on First?’ routine that Abbott and Costello did.”

(Rosencrantz) “We could play at questions.”
(Guildenstern) “What good would that do?”
(Rosencrantz) “Practice!”
(Guildenstern) “Statement, One love.”
(Rosencrantz) “Cheating!”
(Guildenstern) “How?”
(Rosencrantz) “I hadn’t started yet.”
(Guildenstern) “Statement, two love.”
(Rosencrantz) “Are you counting that?”
(Guildenstern) “What?”
(Rosencrantz) “Are you counting that?”
(Guildenstern) “Foul! No repetitions. Three love, first game two-“
(Rosencrantz) “I’m not going to play if you’re going to be like that!”
(Guildenstern) “Foul! No grunts. Love-one.”
(Rosencrantz) “Whose go?”
(Guildenstern) “Why?”
(Rosencrantz) “Why not?”
(Guildenstern) “What for?”
(Rosencrantz) “Foul – no synonyms. One-all.” (Guildenstern) “What in God’s name is going on?
(Rosencrantz) “Foul, no rhetoric. Two-one.”

(Keese) After an opening run in Weston, half the play’s performances will be at colleges and schools. It will also visit Burlington’s Flynn Theater and the Chandler Center in Randolph. Stettler says you don’t have to remember Hamlet to enjoy this existential match of wits and words.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Susan Keese.

Performance information is online at the Weston Playhouse Web site.

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