Absurd, existentialist, raucously funny but also wrenchingly sad, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard is the Shakespeare play we all may need right now. And Kentucky Shakespeare is going to give it to us.
The 1966 play about two minor characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” made Stoppard an overnight sensation. It won a Tony Award and a New York Drama Critics Circle prize for Best Play. In 1990, Stoppard went on to direct the movie version of it — the only movie he’d ever direct — starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth as the titular characters.
It’s not giving away too much to say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tragic characters: The title of the play says as much. But that they live in a world that doesn’t make sense to them — Shakespeare never really provided any character development for them beyond them being childhood friends of Hamlet and a bit greedy — makes them even more tragic.
At various points during the play, one or both of the characters expresses confusion — “How did we get here?” is a prevalent theme in the play. In 2016, a year in which Merriam-Webster declared “surreal” to be the word of the year, that theme is palpable.
At the end of the play, one of the characters wonders aloud about what he could have done differently to prevent the tragic outcome. He doesn’t know, and neither do we.
Matt Wallace, artistic director for Kentucky Shakespeare, will be on the stage, not behind the scenes, for this play. He’ll be playing the devious Player. Company veterans Greg Maupin and Brian Hinds are the titular characters, and the play is being directed by Amy Attaway. It was made possible, in part, from a grant from the Jennifer Lawrence Arts Fund at the Fund for the Arts.
You don’t necessarily need to know your “Hamlet” to enjoy the show, but it certainly helps. Tragically (pun intended) there’s not a single version of the movie to stream on Netflix. However, you can watch The Doctor (David Tennant) and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) lock horns as Hamlet and Claudius streaming on PBS for free.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” runs Jan. 3 to Jan. 8 at Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater. Tickets are $25 and $15 for students.