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Bit Players, Bit Parts

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come back to life in SSU production

By Gretchen Giles

REMEMBER those two fellows who went to school with the crazy prince of Denmark and then got hauled in by his folks to betray him? Neither can the royal court. Given their elaborate names, one would think that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would stand out a bit more, demand a skosh more respect, be more memorable. But in fact, their heavy polysyllabic names hang equally well with one as with the other, and their own mothers might be pressed to tell them apart.

But could someone please tell them where they are? And why? These weighty questions of placement, time, and purpose are all tangled up in verbal fireballs when playwright Tom Stoppard centers his extraordinary abilities on this hapless couple in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--playing through Oct. 27 at SSU--creating a wonderful existential what-ifer about these two most peripheral of all tragic characters. Remembered by most as a lark, Rosencrantz is in fact a serious meditation on time and space à la Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot, with some chuckles thrown in to lighten the shock of recognition.

Set in the nebulous world of the offstage, the two toss coins and quarrel, meet their royal patrons and their buzzed-about friend, conspire to bind him up in a metaphoric nutshell, and then lose their lives by giving away their names. Their onstage time is spent off the scene of Hamlet, their offstage time spent on. Making sense, keeping up?

And to make matters more deliciously absurd, guest director Mary Coleman's production at the Evert Person Theatre features a stage that is literally hung in the air, underscoring the idea that the characters themselves are suspended. "When [designer Evan Olsen] showed it to me, I thought, wow!, this is a pretty extreme choice," Coleman says of the set idea, "but I thought that it worked because Stoppard takes this idea of looking at Hamlet in a different way to every possible extreme."

On staff at San Francisco's innovative Magic Theatre, Coleman leaves her day job at the theater to march out and go right back into the theater, moon- and afternoon-lighting as a freelance director for experimental companies, often working directly with playwrights to develop plot and action. Grounding her direction in movement-based theories, Coleman approached Rosencrantz with the intent of happily knocking her actors around.

"It has a kind of swirling chaos in it," she says of the play. "The characters don't know why they're there or what's going on; they get their information from those who are racing on and off stage, so they have to grab what they can. I took this idea of swirling information and tried to find with our entrances and exits that sense of movement and chaos, doing a lot of improvisation exercises with the actors. We did one where they were almost pinballs, bouncing off obstacles in order to get that style of movement, and now our challenge is to put it on this floating platform. There's an edge of danger to this play: you never really know--and they never know where they stand--and that's a dangerous thing for them.

"I love this play," Coleman affirms later. "I guess that one thing I love about it is that one of my jobs at the Magic Theatre is reading new plays, and I've noticed that most of these plays would be better suited to television or film, and I miss people writing for the theater. I think that Stoppard really loves writing for the theater. Part of it is being bolder and more playful with language, and the writers who are hoping to land jobs on TV are really honing their skills at natural dialogue. I think that that's great; that's a skill I admire. But I really enjoy theater that has heightened language, and the wordplay in this is so intricate and it can make you dizzy in a great way, where you feel as an audience that it's keeping you up on your toes. You can feel the play pulling you along where there's a pace and a rhythm, and the play assumes the intelligence of the audience instead of playing down to them. It has not only a love of language, but a love of theatrical convention; and sometimes he's turning theatrical convention on its head, but it's meant for the stage.

"I rented the movie," she smiles, "and really felt, boy, is this piece meant for the stage! The dynamism in the play is with the words and with this idea that every exit in the play is an entrance someplace else. That's something that you can really only play with on the stage. It just makes a lot of sense on the stage."


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays Thursdays-Sundays, Oct. 17-27. Oct. 17-19 and 24 at 8 p.m.; Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 20, and 26-27 at 2 p.m. Sonoma State University, Evert Person Theatre, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. $5-$12. 664-2353.

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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