Two plays. Two playwrights. Two directors. One cast.
And a central character who may or may not be crazy as a loon.
The Kansas City Actors Theatre is returning to what its founders love best — repertory, in which two or more shows alternate in a rotating schedule. KCAT has done this before, with the so-called Talley Trilogy by Lanford Wilson, and again with the Pinter Project, a collection of works by Harold Pinter.
Now the company is taking on a task that is often done in the English-speaking theater world, but it has been 34 years since these plays were staged in repertory in Kansas City.
William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark seeking revenge for his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle, and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” a cerebral comedy that brings minor characters in “Hamlet” to the foreground while reducing the major characters to supporting roles, will be staged in alternating performances through Sept. 28.
KCAT has, as usual, put together a cast that looks great on paper and is full of intriguing surprises. Jake Walker, widely perceived as a comic actor, plays Hamlet while frequent acting partners Vanessa Severo and Rusty Sneary play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Rosencrantz, of course, is traditionally a male role.
Also in the mix are Cinnamon Schultz as Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother; Scott Cordes as Claudius, his treacherous uncle; Walter Coppage as Polonius, a garrulous councilor; Dianne Yvette as Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter who is pursued by Hamlet; Matt Lindblom as the revenge-mined Laertes, Ophelia’s brother; Kyle Dyck as Hamlet’s friend Horatio; and Brian Paulette as the Player.
Mark Robbins, who is directing “Hamlet” as well as playing the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, said he and fellow director Richard Esvang, who is staging “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” had few preconceived notions about casting before inviting actors in to read for the two plays.
“We just decided we would do it as color-blind and gender-blind as possible,” Robbins said. “So we just wanted to keep that in mind. The option was there. And Richard, all on his lonesome, not being terribly familiar with (Severo and Sneary’s) work, came up with that casting.
“It’s been great because I’ll rehearse ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ come in with a different kind of energy, a kind of comic sensibility that if you were casting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just in ‘Hamlet’ you probably wouldn’t get.”
Walter Coppage, a founding member of KCAT, is African-American and so is Dianne Yvette, who plays Ophelia. But Robbins said that was not by design, nor is it making a statement.
“That’s an excellent example of color-blind casting,” Robbins said. “Walter was already in the role. (Choosing Yvette) just came out in the auditions.”
In Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are courtiers and Hamlet’s former schoolmates, recruited by Claudius to spy on the young prince. In order to eliminate Hamlet as a threat, Claudius ultimately sends him to England escorted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry a letter to the king of England asking to have Hamlet killed.
Unfortunately for the two hapless courtiers, Hamlet discovers the letter and writes a new one that seals their fates. Hamlet returns to Denmark and the two spies are never seen again.
In Stoppard’s piece, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a bumbling pair who have invited comparisons to the central characters of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Just as Vladimir and Estragon seemed trapped in an eternal landscape in Beckett’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, apparently, already dead. They just haven’t figured that out.
“I was looking for a combination in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a duo that could work and riff off each other,” Esvang said. “When you think about it, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not unlike Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. Samuel Beckett said one of the best actors he ever saw was Buster Keaton. Stoppard says, they’re just two blokes who don’t know where they are or what they’re doing or how they got there.”
Essentially, Esvang said, he was looking for actors who were skilled at comedy.
“They need to be comedians,” he said. “They need to be funny and they need to be able to handle the absurd situations in this play.… It was real important for me to find two people who can really play off each other.”
When he was casting, Esvang was unaware that Severo and Sneary have worked together so often that they’re virtually a recognizable team. Severo said they’ve shared the stage in a least six or seven productions and have done some film work together.
In 2013 they performed opposite each other in “Venus in Fur” at the Unicorn and “Burn This” at the Living Room.
Severo said she and Sneary have developed a shorthand in rehearsals and performances through the years. They communicate a lot by looks and gestures.
“Tom Stoppard is dense and it’s difficult and it’s really complicated,” she said. “You have to have a relationship of back and forth so you can pick up on what the other person’s doing. They said they cut out half the work by casting us.… It’s good to be onstage with one of my best people, you know. Every time I think this is the last time.”
Sneary, who has known Severo since college, said their familiarity has lightened a formidable load in doing two shows simultaneously.
“It just takes so much weight and time off of the process to be able to walk into the room and know the person,” he said.
“A lot of the stuff we’ve done, you just have to have absolute trust when you’re the only people onstage for large amounts of time. I can always see where Vanessa is from her eyes and the way she carries herself, just because I’ve worked with her so often.”
Stoppard, and this play particularly, is often labeled “absurdist,” but Esvang said that’s a misnomer.
“There are absurd elements in the play, certainly,” he said. “There are surrealistic elements in the play. I think the minute you try to rope Stoppard into some academic setting, you’re missing the point. The breakout quality of the play when it was first done in ’67 was that it didn’t fit into any category.”
Although “Hamlet” is officially a “tragedy” and Stoppard’s play a “comedy,” there is potent humor in “Hamlet” and profound philosophical implications in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
And the humor in “Hamlet” took Walker by surprise, and it took awhile for him to be comfortable with it. When he began “Hamlet” rehearsals he was still performing in the Coterie’s frothy “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
“I was actually talking to my friend (former Kansas City actor) Nathan Darrow and kind of talking about the strange quality of doing ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ during the day and then shifting gears and doing ‘Hamlet’ at night.
“Nathan said you might be able to learn more about ‘Hamlet’ from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ than you think.… There’s a lot of depressing stuff in it, so it’s really fun to figure out the times when I can play and have fun with it.”
Severo said Walker, in fact, was the funniest Hamlet she’d ever seen: “He doesn’t make Hamlet’s madness scary, he makes it funny.”
Walker said he recalled reading that Hamlet was an unfinished character, and that the missing piece is found in the soul of the actor playing him.
“It is arguably the finest examination of what it means to be human and questions why we are here,” he said. “What is the point? For me to go out there and give anything but my soul would not be doing the part justice, because it is a human being and I am what I am. That’s all I can bring to it, is who I am. And I’m a pretty silly guy.”
Walker played Guildenstern in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival 2003 production of ‘Hamlet,’” in which Robbins played Claudius. Walker said he used Stoppard’s play to study his character for that production. Robbins once played Laertes in dual productions of “Hamlet” and “R&G” staged in repertory in the 1979-80 season at Missouri Repertory Theatre.
That experience is helpful, he said, but it doesn’t mitigate the cultural weight of “Hamlet” for a director.
“The whole thing is scary as hell,” Robbins said. “It’s a play that carries with it a certain amount of gravitas, the weight of centuries of many, many productions and literally tons of critical literature. ‘Hamlet’ is a very important play to a lot of people.
“So for both Jake and myself … it’s an awesome responsibility. The best advice he has gotten and I have gotten about the whole process is: It’s a play. We’ll just do the play. It’s not about posterity. It’s about finding the story and telling it clearly.”