Performing Arts

Tom Stoppard’s riff on ‘Hamlet’ delivers philosophy with rimshots

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo play the hapless title characters in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Late in the play they read a letter that tells them of their fate..
Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo play the hapless title characters in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Late in the play they read a letter that tells them of their fate.. Kansas City Actors Theatre

Every time I see a Tom Stoppard play I have essentially the same reaction: The guy’s an intellectual showoff and erudite snob, but his sense of humor is so wicked that all but the most sedate viewers will inevitably laugh out loud.

Stoppard made his reputation with his 1967 romp, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” an inventive, cerebral comedy that delights in verbal gamesmanship while blending elements of farce, slapstick and a certain bleakness in a way that led critics to associate him with a group of playwrights designated as absurdists.

Be that as it may, “R&G” defies categorization. The idea is simple enough: Take three minor characters in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and build a play around them while reducing the major figures in the Bard’s tragedy to comic walk-ons. As many other companies have done, Kansas City Actors Theatre is producing both Stoppard’s play and “Hamlet” in repertory, allowing viewers a chance to see Shakespeare’s tragedy in a new light while considering Stoppard’s profound questions about the nature of reality. Actors play the same roles in each play on the same set and in the same costumes.

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Shakspeare’s play are foolish courtiers who become tools in Claudius’s scheme to do away with his nephew Hamlet, who poses a threat to the fratricidal ruler as long as he breathes. In Stoppard’s play, the courtiers became the focus as they grope for meaning in long dialogue exchanges full of dazzling wordplay and philosophical questions. Their paths repeatedly cross with the Player, leader of a troupe actors engaged by Hamlet to perform a piece mirroring his father’s murder, allowing Stoppard to reflect on illusion, reality and how — and if — we can know the difference.

The KCAT production, directed by Richard Esvang, showcases the superior comic abilities of three of the city’s best actors: Vanessa Severo (Rosencrantz), Rusty Sneary (Guildenstern) and Brian Paulette (the Player). At the Friday night performance their scenes together consistently fired on all cylinders. The effect was so mesmerizing, the performances so pitch perfect, that I found myself lamenting the absence of a rewind button in live theater.

Part of the fun in watching Sneary and Severo is the way they play Stoppard’s running joke about how easily Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are misidentified by other characters. Which one is Rosencrantz? Which one is Guildenstern? Are they interchangeable? Is identity itself an illusion?

Some people have compared Hamlet to a self-obsessed graduate student, and, indeed, Stoppard’s play seems like the sort of academic exercise you might expect from a playwright in an MFA program. But Shakespeare’s “serious” play and Stoppard’s “comedy” raise some of the same philosophical questions about reality vs. illusion and the nature of theater.

As a general rule, plays about the theater aren’t a good idea. The inside-baseball potential is virtually unlimited. But Hamlet’s instructions to the players on proper acting technique in Shakespere’s play remain applicable today and Polonius (played by Walter Coppage in these shows) stepping up as a self-appointed theater critic as he watches the players rehearse underscores the enduring adage that everybody’s a critic. Shakespeare addressed the artificiality of theater in a number of his plays and I’m not sure Stoppard, despite his wit, really adds much to the discussion.

Nonetheless, if you want to see three gifted actors delivering some of their finest work, you should check out “R&G.” Chances are you’ll find yourself scratching your head or rolling your eyes, but, as noted, you will almost certainly laugh out loud.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” runs in repertory through Sept. 28 at H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.org.

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