Just like with land, they ain’t making more Shakespeare plays. With a finite canon from which to pull, Shakespeare festivals face the very real and terrifying possibility that audiences will (gasp!) tire of ol’ Will’s works. That is why many such festivals, including our own Colorado Shakespeare Festival, now routinely add one non-Shakespeare play to the program each year. Sometimes that play dovetails thematically with one or more of the Bard’s plays on display. Even more frequently, the Shakespeare-adjacent play concerns itself with Shakespeare himself or reinterprets one of his classics. Such is the case with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
Rosencrantz (Michael Bouchard) and Guildenstern (Sean Scrutchins) appear in Hamlet. They are old friends of Hamlet’s whom the new King summons to spy on Hamlet in the hope of learning why he (or she as is the case this year at CSF) has become so melancholy. Like Tweedledee and Tweedledum or Jay and Silent Bob, the two somewhat bumbling, vaguely well-meaning goofballs are a matched set. One never appears on stage without the other. They even share the same fate when they become ensnared in the murderous machinations of the King. Their demise is reported to what’s left of the court in Act Five with the matter-of-fact line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
Often and rightly celebrated playwright and author Tom Stoppard took that line as inspiration and title for his supremely clever, masterfully written comic romp Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which provides one version of the answer to the question, “What happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they are off stage during Hamlet?” For Stoppard at least, the answer is that they, like most of us, try to understand their place in the universe, why they’re here and what it all means. Which makes Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead a surprisingly philosophical theatrical bauble. And no spoiler here: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, again like most of us, fail miserably at unearthing any universal truths, but they are hilarious to watch in the trying.
Perhaps Director Timothy Orr was drawn to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead after reading about the increasing number of Silicon Valley billionaires who are convinced that the world as we know it is merely a hyper-advanced simulation, that we are all of us, in fact, living in some version of the Matrix. Exposure to that theory, maybe combined with a late-night rereading of Macbeth’s famous lament, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more,” could easily have motivated Orr to produce Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.
Regardless, as CSF’s producing artistic director, it was a stroke of genius for Orr to pair Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead with Hamlet during the same season. Both productions take place on the same stage using elements of the same set. Bouchard and Scrutchins play the ill-fated duo in both shows, so intrepid theatergoers may enjoy a double dose of two of the most interesting and talented younger actors working the Front Range today. Similarly, getting to see Hamlet (Lenne Klingaman), Polonius (Rodney Lizcano), the Player (Sam Gregory), Ophelia (Emelie O’Hara) and the other principals from Hamlet playing those same roles in the alternate universe of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is not only terrifically effective dramatically but also a hoot and a half.
Like a modern day Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello, Bouchard and Scrutchins make an excellent comic duo. Whether they’re flipping quarters, forgetting which one of them is Rosencrantz and which one is Guildenstern or delivering Stoppard’s sterling dialogue — like, “Who is the English King? Depends on when we get there.” — they are more than a pleasure to watch.
Whether you consider Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead the fourth course entrée or merely the amuse-bouche of this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival, it is guaranteed not to disappoint.
On the Bill:
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the University
of Colorado Boulder,
Through August 13.