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Photos by Franz Mahr, Words by Melissa Groth

It’s Friday, May 29th and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is about halfway through its recently extended run at the Folger Theatre, and Rosencrantz is in Seattle. Rommell Witherspoon, who plays one half of the titular duo, is set to return to D.C. shortly, but in the meantime, tonight is Luis Alberto Gonzalez’s first night fulfilling his understudy duty. There is, of course, always an understudy, and though they are prepared to take over if necessary, there is still a level of surprise and unexpectedness when they must. He and Adam Wesley Brown (Guildenstern) run through the Questions scene quickly before curtains. You know the game from that one improv class you took: you can speak only in questions, first person to break that rule loses. Brown and Gonzalez volley questions back and forth at each other, keeping score and switching sides like a tennis match. Earning a point for every time the other makes a statement, a non-sequitur, or a rhetorical question. It’s fast-paced, and dizzying to watch the actors keep the metaphorical ball in the air. Luis stumbles over whether a Guildenstern question is a rhetorical one or a non-sequitur. A piece of advice from the Stage Manager, “Any time it’s a question about God, it’s a non-sequitur because that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about.”

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But the thing about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s 1966 existentialist Hamlet spin-off, is that nothing really has anything to do with what it’s talking about, because it’s not really talking about anything (or is it?). The play is dedicated to two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (they are the unwitting and doomed decoys Hamlet betrays in order to avoid his own execution). I read the play as an undergrad; it was my first of many forays into absurdity and existentialist thought as an English major, which led ultimately to my writing a thesis on absurdity and existentialism. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is meant to take place during the action of Hamlet, and is written as if Hamlet is occurring simultaneously. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are waiting to be called into action as characters in Hamlet, they spend their time musing over who’s who and what’s what and what is the point of it all and why does it have to be that way. They are tasked with delivering a message to the King to have Hamlet executed; a message which unbeknownst to them has been changed by Hamlet so that the duo are actually delivering an order for their own execution. During their journey they are accompanied at times by The Player (Ian Merrill Peakes) and his violence-obsessed troupe of Tragedians who perform The Murder of Gonzago. The other characters in the play are often unable to distinguish Rosencrantz from Guildenstern, as the two are also sometimes incapable of doing so. As with many existentialist pieces, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a comedy, quite a witty one, masking perhaps more sinister undertones (they are, after all, ill-fated from the beginning), and has often been compared to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

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For this Behind the Scenes, we got to take a tour of the stage before Friday’s 8 p.m. performance. The set design is nothing short of breathtaking. Walking into the Folger is like walking into a magician’s attic. Hundreds of books are scattered and stacked, lampshades are affixed to the rafters, ladders, rope, antiques, a piano, chests, suitcases, a huge ship’s wheel for the third act, and skulls crowd the stage. The Folger (@folgerlibrary) is actually having a Twitter contest to see who can guess the correct amount of skulls on stage (though you don’t really win anything if you guess correctly). This is set designer Paige Hathaway’s first Lead Set Designer gig out of college. She was hired by Aaron Posner (Stupid Fucking Bird, Drunkle Vanya) and instructed to create a somewhat uncomfortable world, where you don’t exactly feel like you belong, to replicate the feeling of being in your twenties, newly graduated, unsure of the next step; a request maybe not that hard to achieve for someone in that crucial age group. It’s as though the amount of objects onstage reflects an unsureness in itself, as if Hathaway were asking “Is this enough? Is this right?” But there is also a youthful confidence there, a commitment to the question. The title characters are played by young actors, adding to the element of uncertainty since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, on a certain level, a play about being unsure of oneself, of wondering “What am I doing here?” Gonzalez as the understudy Rosencrantz can really do no wrong in this way, and it is perhaps to the advantage of his characterization that he’s been thrown suddenly into the main action.

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Not to mention he’s talented and well prepared. I sit down with him briefly right before he’s to take the stage. He’s in full costume, not nervous, but maybe (understandably) a bit anxious. I ask him how he’s feeling about the performance; it’s a big night for him. He’s “feeling good about it.” He praises the ensemble, saying he feels he’s “in good, capable hands. There are no moments where you feel like you’re on your own” because the ensemble is strong, tight knit. I mention the questions scene he’d been rehearsing with Adam earlier. I ask him if he feels like it’s one of the more difficult scenes, he says that he handles it by “compartmentalizing it into sizable chunks that [his] brain can handle.” But it’s not necessarily difficult. It’s about being there, just existing in the scene, listening and responding. He says he can relate to the existentialist undertones of Stoppard’s play, that it feels very much like he is living in it, living in the “not knowing,” and that it’s “very terrifying fun.”

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Adam Wesley Brown, who plays Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz? Just kidding, it’s Guildenstern. That was some R&G humor for you), is similarly at ease about what seems to me challenging dialogue. He says there are “no more or less difficult scenes,” that you have to “just listen.” He speaks highly of the ensemble as well, saying they are “unbelievably talented and dedicated.” You can tell he’s having a blast in this role, and is excited and confident about tonight’s performance– as if once he takes the stage he too will feel he is “living in it.” Perhaps he can relate to that wondering/wandering phase off the stage as well, having graduated college just a few years ago, which Posner may have noticed in him when he asked Brown to come from Chicago where he was reading for The Tempest to be a part of this production. Of working with Posner, a “true actor’s director,” Brown says he has “never felt like [he] had more of a voice in a project.” I guess you could say he’s been a “Hamlet Guildenstern” in other projects, and in this he’s a “Guildenstern Guildenstern” (although hopefully better-fated). Maybe that’s an absurd statement. Oh, shoot, was I supposed to be speaking in questions?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has been extended to run through June 28th at the Folger Theatre.

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