While it’s not exactly standard for a Shakespearean repertory theater company to perform Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in conjunction with a production of Hamlet and starring the same cast, it’s certainly not rare, either. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has even played the two shows off of each other before, in 1995. But their decision to cap their sixtieth season with Shakespeare’s most famous play and its most famous parody (tragicomedy? tragicomiparody?), both of which star their female Hamlet, is probably the reason tickets for both shows were nearly sold out after only a few performances each.
The two shows share not only a cast, but also a stage, set, costumes, lights, sound (and their respective designers), and even stage managers. The only thing they don’t share is a director: Hamlet, with a woman in the lead, also aptly has a woman, Carolyn Howarth, at the helm (or perhaps it’s the other way around). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, on the other hand, is directed by Timothy Orr, the festival’s producing artistic director. While he clearly has nothing against Shakespeare, he often takes on the non-Shakespeare plays the festival produces, such as David Davalos’s Wittenberg in 2015 and Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet in 2014.
Although it’s probably safe to say that Orr and Howarth worked in tandem at least some of the time, Hamlet opened first and likely drove the direction of much of R&G. That said, in Hamlet, Michael Bouchard and Sean Scrutchins as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively (yes, I double-checked the program) enter carrying their suitcases, wearing traveling cloaks, and with Guildenstern flipping a coin. I’m not sure how many in the audience caught the reference, but I know I caught a few side-eyes for laughing at what is both an inside joke and a teaser for another show.
The set of Hamlet is snowy and desolate with pillar-like trees (or tree-like pillars) that fit whether the scene is in the castle, a cemetery, or somewhere in between. R&G keeps the background but ditches the pillar-trees, resulting in essentially a blank slate. This gives everything an unmoored feel, apropos for a show whose scenes take place in the in-between and whose characters are imprisoned by fate, lacking the freedom to even leave the stage. (“It’s like living in a public park!” Rosencrantz laments, as everything seems to happen in spite of, rather than to or because of, them.) Claudius (Gary Wright) and Gertrude (Mare Trevathan) enter to fanfare through the backdrop itself, which rises to allow them to enter and closes behind them, lest our heroes — such as they are — get any ideas. The tree-pillars return in the final scene, which the play shares with Hamlet; they seemed to be lowered from above, but perhaps not. The seamless scene changes are the excellent work of scenic and lighting designer Stephen C. Jones and crew.
Likewise, everyone wears the same costumes in both shows, which again adds to the feeling that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the audience with them, are trapped in that special purgatory where fictional characters go whenever they aren’t onstage. The two men are dressed similarly, but in different colors and patterns — Guildenstern’s pants are plaid, his vest horizontally striped, his cravat taut and skinny, while Rosencrantz wears vertically striped pants, a polka-dotted vest, and a wide puffy ascot. Both wear suit jackets, traveling cloaks, and identical black bowler hats. It’s no wonder no one can tell them apart — even they don’t always remember which is which.
The cast, pulling double-duty, is just as enjoyable as in Hamlet. The fun (and convenience, if the two are produced together) of R&G is that it brings the minor characters to the forefront, while pushing the major characters, especially Hamlet, to the background. Hamlet has no new lines, only some extra blocking during the time on the ship to England — including a particularly fun bit during the pirate attack (which gets barely a mention in Hamlet’s play) when, as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz and the tragedians hide, she cuts a rope on the rigging and swings, Jack Sparrow-style, off-stage. While in Hamlet, we didn’t care about, and perhaps even rejoiced at, Hamlet’s outsmarting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by replacing the letter condemning her to death with one condemning them, here Hamlet is the antagonist. It’s a testament to Stoppard’s writing, of course, but also to all the actors, that we can root for Hamlet in her play and despise her for murdering our heroes in theirs.
The tragedians are fun, especially the excellently effusive Sam Gregory as their leader, named simply The Player. He gets all the best lines: “We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people!” and “You call that an ending? With everyone on their feet?” in particular tickled the audience. His monologues on acting and theater hammered home the themes — we’re all actors in our own lives, and we can’t leave the stage and don’t know the script, either. The two tragedians who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Elise Collins and Cindy Spitko, interestingly the only two female tragedians) in the mini-play describing the events of Hamlet are especially good. They hold their mimes of being hanged for an uncomfortable amount of time — emotionally for the audience and physically, or so it seems, for them.
As our heroes, Scrutchins (Guildenstern) and Bouchard (Rosencrantz) are a joy to watch. Stoppard’s banter is notoriously fast-paced and tricky, but they make it sing, the lines flowing between them like a melody. Both men’s comedic timing, verbal and physical, is on point. Mere glances through the fourth wall had the audience in stitches, but it was the matter-of-fact, almost offhand nature of some of the darker references to Hamlet that really hit home, such as Rosencrantz’s response after their first fumbling conversation with Hamlet: “She murdered us.” (Ouch.)
Scrutchins’s Guildenstern is the realist, the one who knows something is wrong but can’t understand what or why. His anxiety over not being able to remember important things like why they’re traveling or what their goal is or even their own names is palpable and upsetting, especially as it ramps up in the later acts. Bouchard’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is calm and a little dopey and unbothered by the gaps in his memory. His optimism is catching, even if it seems to be due to repression and avoidance, which makes it all the more poignant when he gets anxious as he starts to remember things. The actors play off each other well, the anxiety and panic flowing between them as smoothly as the banter, and the audience, even though (or perhaps because) we know what will happen, feels their pain and fear. It’s hard not to get emotional in the end, at the infamous line that gives the play its name.
Staging R&G and its parent play together is not standard, but perhaps it should be — the comparisons only serve to strengthen the themes and the audience’s connection with the characters. While Stoppard gives more stage directions than Shakespeare, much is still left to interpretation, and Orr and his cast and crew show us a great one.