A different view of 'Hamlet'
David Kelly says a reading of Tom Stoppard's celebrated comedy "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" stemmed from a selfish urge on his part.
"I love this play so much," says the actor.
The roles in a Monday, Sept. 13, reading of Stoppard's work will be played by actors playing the same characters in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's current production of "Hamlet," running all season in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
The twist, of course, is that Rosencrantz (Vilma Silva) and Guildenstern (Jeany Park), minor characters in "Hamlet," have in Stoppard's play become the central characters. In turn, the main characters in Shakespeare's play — Hamlet (Don Donohue), Ophelia (Susannah Flood), Polonius (Richard Elmore) and Gertrude (Greta Oblesby) — have here become the supporting players.
With all the actors in current OSF plays, Kelly says the group has managed just two rehearsals.
"I thought it would be so much fun to do a reading," he says. "We're about as ready as we can be."
Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy follows the adventures of courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, from their point of view. Much of the play is set in the wings of a Shakespeare production, and major characters from "Hamlet" keep popping up and enacting fragments of the original play's scenes. The two main characters are confused at what happens onstage in "Hamlet" because they have no direct knowledge of that world.
Kelly says none of the actors seems worried that playing the same character in a different play could be confusing.
"In fact, Vilma (Silva) says it's accentuated their state," says Kelly.
It's often been said that the two central characters could almost be opposing sides of a single character, rather like the two tramps in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot."
"It captures how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are caught in the middle," says Kelly. "When Richard Howard played Hamlet (in a 1994 OSF production), they were played almost like a married couple."
Like Beckett's tramps, the two main characters pass time by playing Questions, impersonating other characters, interrupting each other, being confused and letting silence reign. At the start of the play they are betting on coin flips, and Rosencrantz, who bets heads each time, wins 92 straight flips. This leads Guildenstern to suggest that they may be 'within un-, sub- or supernatural forces,' and that an event becomes more real as more people witness it.
"It's inexplicable," says Kelly. "Things that happen, how much is left to chance. They're stuck."
In Shakespeare's story, the King uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, but the Prince outwits them, and they are killed in the end. In Stoppard's story, Guildenstern in the end wonders when he passed a point at which he might have changed the outcome.
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't understand anything that happens," says Kelly. "Stoppard takes it to where we wonder how much choice any of us has."
Stoppard has made available an abbreviated version of the lengthy original play, and that's the one Kelly and company are using. Running time is under two hours. Kelly says it's of the utmost importance to play this play at a fast tempo, almost like farce.
"If you slow it down, it's too analytical," he says. "Almost tragic. Like a slow version of 'Waiting for Godot.' There's nothing worse. So we're trying to keep that spinning-out pace."
The cast includes Brad Whitmore as the Player, Orion Bradshaw as Alfred, Jeffrey King as Claudius. Narration is by Christopher Livingston. Mara Filer is the stage manager. The reading is produced by David Kelly and Ashland High School's Betsy Bishop.
Fifteen posters of OSF's production of Hamlet signed by the cast will be on sale for $25. Proceeds from the reading will benefit the Ashland High School Theatre Department and the Ashland School Foundation.
Bill Varble is a freelance arts and entertainment reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.