Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is famous for its candid and hilarious views on human existence, existentialism and free will. This week, Basement Arts, led by director and Music alum Grant Bates, brings the wit and thought-provoking humor of Stoppard’s masterpiece to campus audiences.
A quality that attracted Bates to this play is the way it relates to students’ lives.
“One of the things that everybody seems to be grappling (with) here are questions about their existence – ‘Where am I going, what am I doing, who am I, now that I am here by choice do I have the opportunity to make my own destiny or is it preordained?” said Bates. “If people want to dig deeply enough, that is very much there.”
LSA freshman Szymon Kietlinski plays Rosencrantz and Music sophomore John Samela plays Guildenstern; the two are trapped in one small corner of the larger plot of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” waiting for characters to enter. As they realize that they are only minor characters trapped in a much bigger story, they devise different ways to cope with their situation – interrogating other characters, philosophizing and generally driving each other nuts. Building off of the classic “unlikely buddies” concept, the characters are amusing opposites. Rosencrantz is the light-hearted bumble-brain, and Guildenstern is the serious and pragmatic worrier. Their bristling chemistry charges the stage between character entrances, keeping the audience intrigued and laughing.
The stage is intentionally sparse, relying on one set, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are suspended in some form of literary netherworld. The structure of the play itself is experimental – limited to one stage, a small cast, major themes and audience interaction – the play’s success wholly rests upon the ability of the actors to illustrate the turmoil and enormity of their situation. The characters also interact with the audience, pushing it further into unconventional territory. Strong actors are absolutely vital to make this work, and Basement Arts admirably meets the challenge with its small but powerful cast.
Onstage, Samela and Kietlinski work wonderfully as a duo expressing a wide range of human emotion – from humor to seriousness. Adam Caplan, who plays Hamlet, tackles his character with an intensity that thrusts the audience back into Shakespeare’s world every time he enters onstage.
For Bates, keeping the production fun is key.
“One of my favorite things about doing theater is having fun and (creating) a little enjoyment for about two hours for other people. I try to impart that to my actors.”
Basement Arts tackles a heavy project in this production, and it carries it out admirably. The actors are obviously a part of this group because they enjoy it, and they bring the freedom of a student-run production with them to the stage. So relieve your brain from mid-term worries and give it something exciting to think about. We all need to indulge in a little existentialism now and then.