Sweet Briar Theatre tackles life’s big questions in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Mary Grace Williams ’20 (left) as Rosencrantz and Emma Thom ’18 as Guildenstern. Photo by Kylene Hayslett

Sweet Briar Theatre will present Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare-inspired tragicomedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, through Saturday, Feb. 24, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25, in Murchison Lane Auditorium.

The absurdist play, which premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966, zeroes in on two minor characters from “Hamlet”: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The play’s title is a direct line from Shakespeare, and everyone who has read or seen “Hamlet” knows what happened to the unlucky duo — Hamlet has them killed for spying on him. Using scenes from Shakespeare, Stoppard imagines Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as full-blown characters who are deeply confused by the plot and, essentially, the world around them and their purpose in it.

“It really becomes a metaphor for how little we know about who we are, what we’re supposed to do, and the forces that work within us,” says Sweet Briar Theatre chair Bill Kershner, who directs the play. “The audience, of course, knows the plot, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are clueless. It’s an existential play, but it’s also very funny.”

You don’t have to know “Hamlet” to enjoy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” Kershner says, pointing out that Stoppard’s Hollywood hit “Shakespeare in Love” stands on its own, too, even if you’ve never read “Romeo and Juliet.” But it is funnier if you know it. To set the stage for its spring production, Sweet Briar College hosted a performance of “Hamlet” by the Aquila Theatre Company in November. That production, of course, was much bigger than the one Kershner has in mind. He wants his audience to be really close to the action, so he is building the seating on stage. Humor, Kershner finds, is more effectively conveyed in a small setting. Plus, he wants to give his students a “different kind of acting experience.” They’ll be in the center, surrounded by the audience on all sides. “It’s very different in terms of movement,” Kershner says.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Williams and Thom had fun during rehearsals and photo shoots. Photo by Kylene Hayslett

One of the actors is senior Emma Thom, who was cast as Guildenstern. Thom is having a lot of fun with her part.

“Guildenstern is a very interesting character because he is so incredibly intelligent but also so wrapped up in illogical arguments,” explains the English and creative writing major from Lynchburg, Va. “His train of thought often trails off, and he is prone to irrational rants. In many ways, we are actually very similar. Though he tends to overthink things, his reasoning is a way to provide some comfort for himself.”

Rosencrantz, on the other hand, “lives in the moment and takes most things literally, which leads to some interesting blocking and laugh lines,” says sophomore Mary Grace Williams, who plays his character. The theater arts major from Greenville, S.C., is having a hard time picking just one favorite scene. “There are so many rich moments throughout the play,” she says.

Thom loves “all of the interactions between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” because “they truly only have each other and have an unbreakable bond.” She is experiencing a similar bond with the cast and director. Kershner, she says, works hard to help his actors understand their characters while making sure rehearsals are “enjoyable and entertaining.”

Williams agrees. The biggest challenge, she says, is memorizing and understanding the script. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never leave the stage, and the material itself can be hard to work through, but thankfully I have my cast mates and director to help me understand the play,” she says.

Other cast members include Isabella DePaulo ’20 (Player), Taylor Watson ’20 (Player King), Cassie Fenton ’18 (Player Queen), Olympia LeHota ’20 (Player Spy 1), Macey Stearns ’20 (Player Spy 2), Phoenix Brown ’20 (Alfred), Ryan Hippe (Hamlet), Haylei Libran ’20 (Ophelia), Adam Snavely (Claudius), Amelia Brooke Burnett ’20 (Getrude), John Goulde (Polonius), Amina Felton ’21 (Soldier), Jordan Sack ’20 (Horatio), Mary Parker ’21 (Courtier) and Maeve Hillengas ’21 (Courtier). Lauren Passaretti ’18 serves as stage manager, while Victoria Jemmett ’18 is the assistant director.

Tickets go on sale Monday, Feb. 12, and are $10 for adults, $7 for senior, $5 for non-SBC students and free for the Sweet Briar community and for children younger than 12. Please note that seating is very limited. Tickets are available online at SBC.tix.com or through the box office at 434-381-6120 or 434-381-6350.

For more information, email Kershner at kershner@sbc.edu.

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