Monday, May 29, 2006

'Hamlet' in reverse

The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey's production of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"

Are humans most free when they show a certain obliviousness to their destiny -- when they allow themselves to be driven through life? Or when they try and control their fate? Why are people willing to be used as pawns by those with more power, and why live if they will eventually die?

Just thinking about these concepts is anxiety-producing to an average mind, but these are the questions actors David Conrad and Sean Mahan, who star in The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey's production of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," have been facing every day for the last three weeks.

The show will open in previews Tuesday to kick off the theater's 44th season. It runs through June 25 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison.

Written by Tom Stoppard and directed by the theater's frequently acclaimed Paul Mullins (who directed "Richard II" here in 2005 and "King John" in 2003), "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is an existentialist spin-off of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." It captures the misadventures and ruminations of two minor and interchangeable characters from "Hamlet," while Shakespeare's original plot occurs in the background.

Conrad and Mahan are the first to admit the play's complexity, bizarreness, and yet its sheer brilliance.

"This is the hardest show I've done," said Conrad, who starred last year in "Richard II." He also has appeared on Broadway in "The Deep Blue Sea" and is currently on break from the CBS TV series "Ghost Whisperer,"where he plays Jim Clancy opposite Jennifer Love Hewitt. But this is different from anything he's ever done.

"There's a lot of nonsensical text to justify and much timing needed," he said.

"Really listening to each other is key," added Mahan, who makes his debut at the Shakespeare Theatre but boasts many regional credits.

In a play where the characters are constantly side by side and never offstage at any point, Mahan said, "It comes down to needing Guildenstern the whole time."

In "Hamlet," these two characters appear as senseless fops. Yet in this play, though even they keep forgetting which is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern, they are given a three-dimensional humanity --though they constantly question it.

"The play is told through two 'users' in 'Hamlet' who are seen as dangerous to Hamlet. Yet we here we must feel for them,"Mahan said.

He said this play shows that the two interchangeable men are in fact individuals with separate thoughts and actions. They are the ones asking what is important in life. Ultimately, however, their actions will cause them to resign to their doomed fates, and at the end Rosencrantz simply says, "We'll know better next time," the play's most famous line.
In similarity to "Hamlet," the play also calls into question the notions of acting and theater, as well as probability, speculation, the true and the false.

At a recent rehearsal, Mullins had Conrad and Mahan doing a scene where they were spinning coins together. Rosencrantz (Mahan) keeps winning and is simply excited about his "new record." Yet Guildenstern (Conrad) is shocked at the improbable results of the tosses. He is over-consumed with what it says about the nature of the universe -- does probability exist?

Mullins and the rest of the rehearsal room laughed at this speculation. Though it deals with death, the play is extremely funny.

Suddenly a vagabond band of insecure and doomed-looking players appears onstage. A player king (Andy Weems of "King John") greets the two coin-tossers, but is only interested in using them for his purposes.

"An audience!" he surmises.

A young, effeminate boy, Alfred, puts on a corset dress and timidly prepares to act. Guildenstern is upset and asks, "Alfred, do you like being an actor?" The boy is embarrassed and runs away.

It is Guildenstern who thus harshly remarks on the exposing nature of theater: "No dignity ... only a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes." Yet his repression and non-support of this kind of "exposure" is really a fear, Conrad said.

"He is afraid of that void that everyone knows, exists," he said.

Though temperamentally, Conrad and Mahan are similar -- both engaging, action-driven, yet introspective men -- they claim to possess opposite inner qualities. Conrad's and his character's habit is the impulse to bring control to chaos and to overthink.

Mahan is the opposite --more childlike. He wishes he would think ahead more.

"It's hard to play close to your own defect," Conrad said.

"But it's what makes this better than real life," he continued. "It gives you a depth of feeling. We live in a data world, and theater is about losing that."

Though he has had success in the data-oriented age of TV, Conrad himself is relieved to be back on stage because of the enlivening and exposing aspect of what his character puts down -- a real audience.

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