by mark kennedy ap drama writer
Playwright Tom Stoppard's first big hit starred two unlikely heroes — a pair of insignificant characters lifted from "Hamlet."
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" tells the absurdist story of the Danish Prince's childhood friends, who are sent to spy on Hamlet and end up as confused courtiers navigating the shark-infested waters of the royal court.
As the title suggests, the play ends poorly for the pair. But it didn't for Stoppard: It won the best play Tony Award in 1968 and was turned into a film starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth.
Now The Acting Company, the renowned touring theater troupe that counts Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and Jeffrey Wright among its alumni, is about to hit the road with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," directed by Tony winner John Rando. The twist? It's being performed in repertoire with "Hamlet" and the actors play the same roles in both works.
"I love the challenge of it," says Rando, who directed the Broadway hits "A Christmas Story," "The Wedding Singer" and "Urinetown," for which he won a directing Tony. (Ian Belknap directs the companion "Hamlet.")
Both plays are currently in New York City at the Pearl Theatre but early next month hit the road, visiting Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Vermont, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Minnesota.
Rando, a University of Texas graduate, recalls falling in love with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" as a student and waiting for a chance to direct it himself.
AP: Tell us about this play. What's it like?
Rando: I think it's an extremely entertaining evening and truly thought-provoking and, of course, funny but also powerful and touching. It's like `Waiting for Godot.' It has that kind of impact on an audience. In a way, that's what Stoppard did: He wrote `Waiting for Godot' for these two characters who are stuck in `Hamlet.'
AP: Have you ever met Stoppard?
Rando: I met him when I was in college. He came and visited. This was back in 1979. But since that time, I haven't spoken to him.
AP: Have you seen the movie version?
Rando: I didn't. I knew there was a movie. I decided not to watch it. I did see imagery from it — I saw pictures — and I got a sense of what the movie was like but I decided not to watch it. And hadn't seen a production of it, either. I read it in school, I'd done a few scenes from it in school, but I'd never seen a production.
AP: Doesn't putting "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" in repertoire with "Hamlet" sort of elevate Stoppard to Shakespeare's level?
Rando: I would agree with that. Sure, why not? I think he's an amazing playwright for our time. I think if you wanted to point to a playwright from the `60s, `70s, `80s and `90s and now and you said, `Who were the great writers of that era?' you would point to Stoppard.
AP: Speaking of absurdity, this play arrives at a time when `Waiting for Godot' and Harold Pinter's `No Man's Land' are both on Broadway. Are we going through an existential moment?
Rando: I don't know why this happened. It just did. I'm always convinced with plays — especially revivals — that producers, directors and actors do them because they want to. And it may be that we're all feeling the same thing.
AP: Could "Hamlet" and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" ever be performed at the same time?
Rando: I suppose if you had two theaters that were connected, I think you could. Yes, you probably could do it. But you'd have to have two different audiences. I don't know if the timing would work. I don't know if you could get the king over in time to do his scene when he's over there doing their scene. And then how do you get Rosencrantz over there to his scenes? I don't know. It wouldn't work. Forget it.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits