Rosencrantz & Guildenstern: They're dead. And you?

by Simon de Carvalho '14

"Don’t you see? We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!"

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play about people. And that is perhaps the best compliment I could think to pay it, because its depiction of hilarious, beautiful, tragic humanity is just about the most powerful thing I’ve seen on a stage.

The play, written by Tom Stoppard, follows the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor courtiers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, telling the story from their point of view, one filled with philosophical discussions of life, death and purpose.

Gordon Teskey, professor of English at Harvard and a Shakespeare specialist, notes

that Shakespeare was so successful because he "understood the popular stage. He understood that people, his audience, are interested in people." And Stoppard does the same with Rosencrantz. It’s about people. We can relate.

Rosencrantz, which is at the end of a four-show run at the Loeb Ex (the final two shows are today, Saturday, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.), stars Ben Silva ’14 as Rosencrantz and Eli Kahn ’13 as Guildenstern, and was directed by Nora Murphy ’12.

This production is, to quote Murphy, "a tad strange." The audience’s seats are arranged idiosyncratically, with a few isolated seats placed almost directly in the action. The set is minimalist with random props strewn about (mannequins, shopping

carts, a mummy, Christmas presents), and the audience itself is really a part of the set, with the actors frequently interacting with audience. At one performance, Rosencrantz took a video camera of one of the spectators around with him as he delivered a monologue, and I myself was adorned with a Hawaiian lei during the show.

Says director Nora Murphy, "I never want [members of the audience] to just sit back and relax. I want them to always be conscious that they are audience members, and that that is its own role." This awareness that we’re actors, too, is very powerful, and it allows us to connect personally with the events of the play.

"At its heart, this is a show about identity—how you choose an identity and how you come to be an independent person," says Murphy. And for her, this theme is highly personal: "As a senior, I constantly find myself gripped by fear of the real world and just wanting to retreat back to my parents, who have always been so good at leading my life."

For these characters, finding identity means finding a path with a foreseeable conclusion, and as such their quest is tragically flawed from the start. We all die, yes, but why would we want to know when? Guildenstern points out that after they deliver their letter to the English king, their story might be over—they’ll have nothing left to do. Rosencrantz is horrified: "With loose ends?" he nearly sobs. As if the thought of having no set path were just as bad as not living at all.

"They aren't required to deliver Hamlet's letter (which contains their death sentence) to the English king," says Murphy, "but the alternative is to strike off on their own, and that's too terrifying an option for them to contemplate. So that struggle to become a free agent is one that I think everyone here can sympathize with."

Ultimately, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is so very tragic—so very powerful—because these protagonists are just like all of us. The inconspicuous grey t-shirts and black jeans that the leads wear in this production underscores the connection. We’re all Rosencrantz. Or we are all Guildenstern. (The characters themselves are not even sure which one is which).

"I love the title characters completely: every weak, dumb, afraid atom," says Murphy. "They break my heart."

They’ll break yours too.

[Caption: Eli Kahn '13 as Guildenstern and Ben Silva '14 as Rosencrantz in the HRDC production of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." PHOTOS: Alicia Anstead]

[Caption: Richard Sims '13 as Queen Gertrude and Katie Wetstone '15 as King Claudius]

[Caption: Julian Ryan '15 as the Poisoner and Caroline Giuliani '11 as The Player]

[Caption: Silva and Kahn as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern]