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There is no better way to see connections between diverse plays and characters than by seeing them in rotating repertory. For instance, at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe, you can ponder the similarities between Krystel Lucas’s regal incarnation of the fairy queen in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and her powerful, thoughtful performance as cross-dressing legal eagle Portia in “The Merchant of Venice,” while you marvel the differences between Miles Anderson’s hysterically funny turn as a director’s worst nightmare in “Midsummer” and his layered, nuanced Shylock in “Merchant.”
But the Shakespeare play most closely connected to the Old Globe’s third production, Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” namely “Hamlet,” isn’t part of the summer line-up. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is the story of “Hamlet” told from the perspective of two minor characters, while the stars of “Hamlet” drift in and out, speaking bits of Shakespeare’s text and generally shaking things up for the title characters as they try to understand the greater narrative over which they have no control. Through coincidences both planned and fortuitous, “Hamlet’s” ghost hangs over the theater and interacts with the the play in weird and wonderful ways.
On the deliberate side of things, the decision to cast Lucas Hall and Charles Janasz as Hamlet and Polonius, roles that they played in the Globe’s 2007 production of “Hamlet,” is inspired. While having two actors reprise their roles is a fun inside joke for people who saw the play six years ago, it also makes it easier for the actors to bring the weight and complexity of Shakespeare’s characters to the scenes in which their paths intersect with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s.
“Just working on those little moments has made me remember how exciting and gratifying the role of Hamlet can be,” said Hall. “Stoppard also puts two scenes onstage that happen offstage in Shakespeare: the boat scene [in the final act], and also a scene with Ophelia. It’s a backstage look at Hamlet, if you hadn’t seen enough of him already.”
“I felt my Polonius coming back but I didn’t want it to too much,” said Janasz. “It’s a rediscovery. It’s interesting to be doing him again in a new context. I actually have one scene where I’m supposed to be doing an aside where I have new lines that [director] Adrian [Noble] has written. He’s added a framing device of doing a ‘Hamlet’ film, and all the asides are to the camera.”
On the serendipitous side was casting Sherman Howard, an actor new to the Old Globe’s Shakespeare Festival, as the Player, the third character in the play whose role is expanded far beyond what Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet.” In Shakespeare’s original, Hamlet uses the traveling band of actors to re-enact the murder of his father to get the murderer to reveal himself. In Stoppard’s play, the Player and his company inadvertently follow the progress of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and serve as earthy foils to their philosophical explorations. Though Howard has never before been cast as the Player, he performed the role a few times as an understudy in San Francisco.
“I’ve wanted to play this role for many years, since I first saw the play,” he said. “Twenty years after my first introduction to the Player, I played Hamlet. Somehow, the world of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ inoculated me for ‘Hamlet,’ rather than the other way around.”
Because the actors have such a close relationship to Shakespeare’s play, it’s no surprise that they speak eloquently about Stoppard’s retelling.
“Stoppard sees ‘Hamlet’ very clearly, I think,” said Hall. We put Hamlet on a pedestal, but people relate to Hamlet because he’s so like us. I think the boat scenes that Stoppard added are very insightful. I think that’s exactly how Hamlet would act. Hamlet’s a step ahead of everybody.”
“Because Polonius is such a familiar character, Stoppard fit him in where he needed him, knowing the audience would recognize him,” said Janasz. “I think he’s a lovable character. He’s funny. Yes, he’s kind of gasbag, and needy and flawed, but he’s also focused on being a loving father. You don’t always see that side of him because the focus is on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They need him, though he comes into scenes mainly to talk to Hamlet. They’re focused on getting information from Claudius and Gertrude. They spend a lot of time speculating about existence, death and reality and they can’t get out: They’re trapped.”
“Stoppard clearly sees the futility of trying to fit the infinite complexity and nuance of life into the rigid structures of philosophy,” said Howard. “When one human’s brain tries to account for the mechanisms of the universe, no matter how clever the philosopher, the theory they come up with with will be overdetermined and simplistic compared to the infinite variety of nature. Stoppard knows that. He sees that. He’s brilliant at finding the humor in it.”
All three actors agree that the best way for the audience to prepare for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is to revisit “Hamlet” in some form, either by reading it or seeing a film version.
“You’ll understand where the references are coming from, as well as the framing device,” said Janasz. He recommends the 1969 film starring Nicol Williamson as Hamlet and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius.
“Of course, there’s the Olivier film. He’s quite wonderful,” said Howard, “but I don’t understand why he surrounded himself with such boring people. I may be in the minority of this, but I quite like the Mel Gibson Hamlet. I think he handles the scenes wonderfully. He gets a bit lost in some of the soliloquies, but frankly, a lot of people do. But I think the movie as a whole is really great.”
Hall is partial to the 1964 Russian version he watched while preparing to do a semi-staged “Hamlet” featuring Dmitri Shostakovich’s film score played live by the North Carolina Symphony. “The film is heavily adapted, but it’s amazing. It’s really sexy and scary.”
Of course, the other thing the audience can do to best savor “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is to sit back and enjoy the ride.
“The thing about Shakespeare is that he’s perpetually contemporary,” said Howard. “He’s got the pulse of what it is to be a human looking at the world and wondering what it all means. It’s never out of date. I think the essence of that inquiry is paradox. There is no idea or set of ideas that can accommodate all of this. I think Stoppard absolutely understands that. I think he takes special delight in presenting the paradoxical nature of what it is to be a human being in the constantly surprising, dangerous, and funny world we live in.”
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” runs in rotating repertory with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Merchant of Venice” at the Old Globe through Sept. 26.