Based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Elizabethtown College’s fall production of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” will not only be funny, but also philosophical, triggering thoughts on life, death and one’s identity, according to those involved.
Set in Elizabethan times, Tom Stoppard’s meta theater “play-within-a-play” asks the question, “Am I a minor character in someone else’s life?” according to director Michael Swanson.
The play tells the story of what happens when main characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, minor characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” wait for their lines and for the drama to unfold, senior Daniel “DJ” Littell, who will play the character of Rosencrantz, explained.
According to senior Rachel Saul, who will play Guildenstern, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are asked to find out why Hamlet is acting crazy. Mike Wawrzynek, who will act as The Player, said “It shows what happens when they’re not in ‘Hamlet.’”
Rosencrantz, a close friend of Guildenstern, is forgetful and empirical, according to Littell. He views the world from a shallow perspective. “He sees things and he takes them for what they are, as opposed to trying to think about them and what they mean,” Littell said.
Wawrzynek’s character, The Player, wants money, fame and to perform in front of anyone he can, especially the king. “He’s very theatrical. He’s pretty much like a normal theater person,” Wawrzynek said. Although not as full of himself, Wawrzynek does share a common interest with his character: “I’m an actor playing an actor so it’s pretty much the same thing,” Wawrzynek said.
“Guildenstern is like a very deep thinker,” Saul said. According to Saul, Guildenstern also possesses an inflated view of her own knowledge, thinking she knows more than she actually does. “I’d like to think I’m a little more down to earth than she is,” Saul said. “For Guildenstern, there’s a danger in not being your own person.” She is frequently confused with Rosencrantz.
“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” is a modern classic of the mid-60s that received great acclamation and was chosen by the play selection committee that consists of three theater faculty members and two students. It allowed exploration of different theatrical styles: Shakspeare and theater of the absurd.
Begun after World War II, theater of the absurd is a theatrical development tied to existential philosophy; according to Swanson, one aspect of existential philosophy is that there is no God.
According to Theatredatabase.com, theater of the absurd is “a particular type of play which first became popular during the 1950s and 1960s. It presents the philosophy articulated by French philosopher Albert Camus in his 1942 essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ in which he defines the human condition as basically meaningless.”
“To kind of capture the idea of what is it like to be a minor character in someone else’s life or someone else’s play,” is an idea Stoppard captures in the play, Swanson said.
“The play asks questions that I think we all ask but in a very unique way. I love that these are minor characters, and they’re struggling to figure out what their place is in the world. I think that even though we might not actually verbalize these things like these characters do, we think about them, and Stoppard brilliantly, I think, really brilliantly, gives them words and articulates these thoughts,” Littell said.
Not only does Littell want the audience to laugh a lot, but he also wants them to think. “I hope that the audience questions why they were laughing in the face of two characters that are destined to die,” he said.
Although Wawrzynek was not cast for the role of Guildenstern, the role he tried out for, Wawrzynek is content. “I’m very happy with the role of The Player. It’s, it’s me. It fits me better than Guildenstern would have.”
To prepare for her role as Guildenstern, Saul re-read Hamlet and researched the setting, location, words and concepts she did not understand. “In the first act, Guildenstern talks a lot about probability and different philosophers, so I had to kind of familiarize myself with those things,” she said. Additionally, she made a backstory for Guildenstern, which helped to analyze him.
“I hope they laugh. I hope it makes them think. I hope that some of them are at least a little bit familiar with ‘Hamlet’ too, because I think it will add to the experience if they know ‘Hamlet’ a little bit,” Saul said.
The play had a six-week rehearsal process. “For any show really, when you spend so much time with it, it’s like your baby, and you’re ready to set it free, and you want it to do as [well] as possible,” Saul said.
Not only does Littell hope the audience will laugh, but he hopes “they’ll learn that there are many different ways of approaching the same subject. My character always takes one side, the empirical side, and I hope he makes people or helps people realize that their way of thinking of things is not the only way to think of things,” he said.
Etown graduate Beth Lewis is attending the production. “[It] is a fantastic show and I can’t wait to see how they do it. Based on my four years of theater at Etown, I imagine it’s going to be amazing,” Lewis explained in an email interview.
The play features an unconventional beginning, in which the actors will warm-up before the audience and put on stage makeup and costumes in front of them, according to Swanson. It is a “comment on how actors approach actually putting on a play,” Littell said.
“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” will be playing Oct. 27, 28, 29 and Nov. 3 and 4 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. in the Tempest Theatre.