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Stoppard and Shakespeare in a new light
By Karen Hauge Thu, Sep 11, 2014 AddThis
A double feature of Shakespearean proportions constitutes the latest impressive offering from Kansas City Actors Theatre by pairing the absurdist “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with its forebear “Hamlet.”
Stoppard and Shakespeare in a new light
A double feature of Shakespearean proportions constitutes the latest impressive offering from Kansas City Actors Theatre by pairing Tom Stoppard’s absurdist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with its forebear, Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. KCAT’s choice to perform these pieces in repertory with a single cast represents a monumental and extremely successful effort that illuminates elements of each play that are not obvious when viewed separately.
The story of Hamlet is familiar to most who have completed a senior English class in an American high school, and its ubiquity in our consciousness seems to involve much gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, and proselytizing to empty skulls. At the time I wrote off Hamlet as a whiner and wasn’t particularly taken with what felt like a long and depressing study on revenge and madness. For many Kansas City theatregoers I suspect KCAT’s production of Hamlet will help free the play from tired clichés and make way for new appreciation as it did for me.
Director Mark Robbins integrates modern elements with more traditional ones in his approach to setting Hamlet for the small black-box style theater of City Stage at Union Station, effectively finding a middle ground between Elizabethan and Ethan Hawke-esque interpretation. The dialogue is (blessedly! mercifully!) sans phony, generically European accent, and delivered in inflection that more accurately reflects today’s English than iambic pentameter. Nary a doublet is worn on stage; only the minor characters are seen in something resembling full traditional costumes, while the main characters are outfitted in suits, military uniforms, jeans, sneakers, and corsets. The set is as minimal as the theater itself, comprising a few movable wooden platforms adjusted to create new paths for the action to pass through; the blocking is athletic and descriptive, so backdrops and most props are unnecessary. The lighting and sound takes on a character of its own, creating a ghostly figure out of a solid person and uses well-timed sound effects to create the impression of a large crowd, or of an otherworldly voice moving behind the audience. Original music, composed by Greg Mackender and performed by local musicians Sascha Groschang and Laurel Parks, lends atmosphere and variety that spices up the duration of the five-act play, which clocked in at exactly three hours running time, including intermissions—an extremely tidy and admirable length.
Walter Coppage makes Polonius a little oily and pompous but not unlikable, often casting lines in a much cheekier light than I’ve ever imagined them before. Cinnamon Schultz as Gertrude manages to play up the morally corrupt, sexpot queen persona without giving Hamlet any reason for an Oedipal complex. Her partner in sleaze, Scott Cordes, is a fairly blustery Claudius; you could more easily call him “old windbag” than “dastardly villain,” which really makes Hamlet’s quest for justice seem all the more deranged to onlookers.
Jake Walker, in his KCAT debut and first Shakespeare lead, gives a tour-de-force performance. The Hamlet we first meet is sullen, withdrawn behind sunglasses and a hoodie, and his initial interactions are the outbursts of an angry teenager. However, away from prying eyes, Walker shapes a character who is vulnerable, broken, and tortured by his own grief. We witness his tender feelings for Ophelia (portrayed with great grace and grotesqueness by Diane Yvette) morph into deep betrayal and anger, a transition that is swift but tangible. As Hamlet spirals into his own planned madness, the swaggering, sharp-tongued persona he wears in public blurs with his increasingly more frantic private self to create the great crescendo that makes the play’s final scene. Even if Walker had been joined on stage by less talented actors than he was, I would still insist that audiences hasten to catch his performance; you won’t find a more relatable or compelling Hamlet around.
Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes two minor characters from Hamlet and creates a play outside a play, inventing events that might have happened while Hamlet’s story was unfolding. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are school friends of Hamlet, sent for by Gertrude and Claudius to come and coax the cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness out of him. They appear in only a handful of scenes and are memorable only for the fact that they are not very clever and not very memorable, as other characters routinely interchange their names. They are easily outwitted in their task by Hamlet, who evades their queries and who is eventually separated from them on his way to England. The final mention of the pair in Hamlet is the news that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” delivered without sentiment and received with indifference.
Stoppard develops the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as two halves of the same foolish man. The play’s action is largely static, with the two characters sitting around and contemplating the confusing pointlessness of their lives. As in Hamlet, they do not exist to do things; rather, things simply seem to happen to them, and they have no control over any aspect of their lives. The first part of the play is spent in discussion over the probability of a coin landing on heads 92 times in a row, and then trying to figure out where they are going in the middle of their journey to Elsinore, whence they have been summoned by Gertrude and Claudius. They pass the time between musings about their life purpose by playing Questions and arguing about semantics. Once in Elsinore they prove to be completely incapable of extracting information from Hamlet, since they struggle with the concept of role playing as an end to achieving this task. The play is commonly referred to as absurdist or existentialist, in the vein of Waiting for Godot, and poses important philosophical questions about man’s significance, and whether it can be determined or felt without the opinion and value bestowed by other men.
Vanessa Severo and Rusty Sneary carry the play as the two title leads. Casting a woman as Rosencrantz proved to be no problem at all; since the crux of the play is that these characters hardly matter; thus, it hardly matters what they look like. They play off each other with ease and balance, Severo’s naïve, quirky Rosencrantz proves a clueless foil for the worrier Guildenstern, who constantly frets about problems of math, nature, and fate which are just beyond his understanding. This duality is crucial to the evolution of the characters. Severo’s almost perky enthusiasm coexists with a complete inability to remember how a conversation began, much less her own name. As the reality of their pointless lives sets in, she develops the ability to fear very deeply. Sneary plays Guildenstern as the often-exasperated companion, usually wound up in some contemplation of philosophy which inevitably ends in confusion, until he realizes that they are fated to die, and makes a wild attempt to control his own life.
Just as Hamlet shows the audience the lengths to which a person will comprise their own sanity and safety for the sake of justice, the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern puts under a microscope elements of our lives that are vulnerable and more easily ignored: the fear of the unknown, of insignificance, of being completely out of control of our lives. KCAT’s performances convey the humanity of each play, and two plays in repertory serve to highlight less often observed elements in each–the energy and absurdity of Hamlet’s tale as well as the profound tragedy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s. Attending these productions will leave you wondering–which is preferable: to be tortured and destroyed by your own convictions, or to have none at all?

Kansas City Actors Theatre
Hamlet/Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
August 26–September 28 (Reviewed Saturday, September 6, 2014)
City Stage at Union Station
30 W. Pershing Rd., Kansas City, MO
For tickets and more information, visithttps://www.kcactors.org/
Top Photo: Cast of Kansas City Actors Theatre’s Hamlet