Shakespeare's bit players get their comic due

Brattleboro Union High School actors take on 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'

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BRATTLEBORO — Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is a play within a play, wrapped in Laurel and Hardy-like absurdity, tomfoolery, laughter and death.

The BUHS Players have been busy getting ready for the challenge of staging Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy, and they'll put it on stage Friday and Saturday at Brattleboro Union High School, directed by Robert Kramsky and stage-managed by David Scott.

Often compared to the existential antics of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" brings the pair of bit characters from the periphery of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to center stage, where they bear witness to the unfolding madness. It's a clever, quirky, ingeniously crafted conundrum about two friends who blunder their way through improbable circumstances beyond their control, commenting on the absurdity of it all.

"I love to introduce challenging roles to my students," Kramsky said of the play. "It is contemporary with lots of levels of interpretations. It is a play that I have loved for a long time."

For an additional twist, under Kramsky's direction, the cast of seven play not only the main characters from "Hamlet" as Hamlet, (Zack Thomas), Rosencrantz (Gale Allen), Guildenstern (Sarah Gordon-Macey), Polonius (Amar Vargas), Claudius (Meghan Frost-Clark), Ophelia (Gavin Holloway), and Gertrude (Raina Armour-Jones) but also play members of a traveling troupe of tragedian players who help propel the plot. This creates an additional acting challenge for the BUHS Players, as they must switch back and forth between characters. Lighting cues and attire help the audience keep up. The BUHS players are dressed in all black when they are portraying members of the tragedians and don period costume when playing the "real" characters of Shakespeare's play.

As in Shakespeare, as old schoolmates of the Danish prince, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned to the court of Elsinore to ascertain why Hamlet is going mad, and then accompany him to England where, unbeknownst to them, he is to be beheaded. But in Stoppard's hands, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend their time wondering what it's all about, tossing coins, playing word games, indulging in shallow philosophy, and pondering the meaning of their existence.

It helps to know "Hamlet," but it's not necessary to appreciate the humor.

"There's a lot to think about," Kramsky said. "The audience will laugh, even if confused." Kramsky plans to offer a printed program also to help understand the play.

As the name would suggest, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the most lines in a wordy play.

Allen, a senior at BUHS, said Rosencrantz is often described as dumb. "Rosencrantz as a character is childlike, but he gets things that others don't, so maybe not so dumb," she said.

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As an actor with several years on stage to her credit, Allen likes to do things in a big way. "I am trying not to be too animated, less clown-like and more simple-minded," she said.

Gordon-Macey, who is also a senior, plays Guildenstern. "I really like working with Gale, getting into the rhythm of doing this with a friend," she said. "It is interesting to watch the dynamics between us and the other characters."

"It is a good acting experience since my character is on the stage the whole time," Gordon-Macey added. "There are not a lot of props, and not a huge ensemble so I have to think a lot on my feet."

Frost-Clark, whose roles are the Player and Claudius, agrees with Gordon-Macey. "What I like most is the dynamics here," she said. "It is nice to work with friends. I hate Claudius as a person, he is murderous, a psychopath, but he is fun to play. As the lead Player, he knows things about everyone and toys with them."

Thomas appreciates Hamlet's weirdness: "He says weird things, and because it is weird it sort of makes it easier to learn, they stick in my head. I like him being weird or crazy. Is he, or is he just acting?"

Armour-Jones, who plays Gertrude, said "I like her role because I get to do a lot to make her as my own. As I get into her character, I come from the concern that my son is losing his mind."

Vargas, who often plays not-so-nice characters, is playing Polonius, the faithful servant to the king. "It's different from parts I often play, he is a likable character," he said.

The simplicity of the set is by design, as all the scenes take place backstage of a theater where the actors hang out. That's convenient for Kramsky who has to get creative with a limited budget. Doubling up the roles for the BUHS players accommodates his smaller cast.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" has often been referred to a play about death, with their death left to your imagination. But Kramsky feels it is more a play about acting. "Educational theater is a great opportunity to learn about being actors," he said.

Performances are at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, at the BUHS auditorium on Fairground Road. Admission is $5 at the door. For more information call 802-451-3762.

Cicely M. Eastman is a frequent contributor to the Reformer's arts and cultural coverage.


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