Author: Jill Kimball

CSF stages fresh, funny ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’

Tom Stoppard’s classic play turns ‘Hamlet’ inside out.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 60th season continues with “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” a critically-acclaimed 1966 play by Tom Stoppard. CSF’s producing artistic director Timothy Orr directs the production.

In this hilarious and mind-bending comedy by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Shakespeare in Love,” “Hamlet” is brilliantly retold through the eyes of two minor characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two bewildered schoolmates sent to pull the Danish royal out of a descent into madness, grapple with fate, free will and the game of life.

In a unique twist, CSF will present “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” in repertory with “Hamlet” on the indoor University Theatre stage. The sets complement each other well, and the two plays share one cast, with each actor playing the same role in both productions.

“The feeling we’re going for is that ‘Hamlet’ is happening just on the other side of the curtain, just around the corner,” Orr says. “I thought it would be a fascinating artistic journey not only for the actors but also for the audiences who will see both plays.”

The “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern” set, Orr explains, transports the audience to a backstage-like area where the title characters while away the hours flipping coins and playing cards as the events of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” unfold in shadows behind a large cyclorama.

But for all its “Hamlet” references, Stoppard’s play is a very different animal. The language will feel more familiar to a contemporary audience, and the play is more comedy than tragedy. The pair of title characters, played by beloved Colorado clowns Sean Scrutchins and Michael Bouchard, delivers an endless supply of intelligent banter and “Who’s on first?”-style routines reminiscent of Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis.

“When you plop this humor into the context of something as heavy and serious as ‘Hamlet,’ it can be just ridiculous fun,” Orr says. “At the same time, it’s very chilling, since the title of the play gives away exactly what’s going to happen to the characters.”

Orr says designing this play alongside “Hamlet” director Carolyn Howarth was like “playing a game of three-dimensional chess.” They’ve both had to consider each other’s plays to make sure the two work together in repertory. Props must be strategically placed for the sake of continuity, and each cast member must treat every exit like an entrance to someplace else.

“We’re trying to put little Easter eggs into each other’s plays for audiences who will see both of them,” Orr says. “We want people to think, ‘If i could just lean over far enough, I could catch the other play.’”

While a fresh viewing of Shakespeare’s masterpiece heightens the humor in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern,” Orr assures audiences that they need not know “Hamlet” or Shakespeare to enjoy the witty wordplay and hilarious misunderstandings in this production.

“At its heart,” he says, “it’s a story about two ordinary guys trying their best to navigate through life, just like the rest of us.”