The latest offering from inD Theatre is derivative in the best possible way.
Derivative works are based on, or derived from, one or more existing works, the more prominent and ubiquitous the better. And, so far as bedrocks go, you just can’t beat the Bard.
The island-based performance group’s imminent production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” takes the familiar tale of “Hamlet” and skews the focus so as to star two previously minor characters and show one of the English-speaking world’s most iconic tales from their (admittedly rather baffled) perspective.
Musings and mishaps abound as the titular duo, childhood friends of everybody’s favorite gloomy prince, navigate the minefield that is the tragedy they don’t know they’re in … or do they?
Metatheatre, absurdity, randomness, fate, and the interplay of art vs. reality — these are the themes of Stoppard’s (and, for that matter, Shakespeare’s) story.
Been a while since you brushed up on your “Hamlet?” Do you fear Shakespeare?
Don’t worry, as the show’s director and stars agreed, a basic Wikipedia-style familiarity will be sufficient to enjoy and comprehend the play (or, you know, just watch “The Lion King”).
“Certainly, familiarity with ‘Hamlet’ is going to make it a little bit more understandable,” said director Tom Challinor, comparing the levels of depth in the story to three-dimensional chess. “It’s very unusual in that it’s a play that knows it’s a play; it’s self-aware and that makes it unusual.
“The people in the play exist as characters in the play and they exist as actors — and they’re aware of the fact that they’re actors — and they exist as human beings independent of those other two things. So the play is always moving between those three layers of the chess board.”
Chelsey Sheppard, who plays Guildenstern, said she’d likely give her own mother, who she said is less familiar with “Hamlet,” a rough overview, but doesn’t feel it’s necessary for anybody to go rereading it before seeing this show.
“We’re all our own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the epic story of life,” Sheppard said. “It’s a good play for people who know theater, and, I think, knowing ‘Hamlet’ just kind of goes hand-in-hand with knowing theater, it’s such a classic. But there is so much about things like fate and free will and the question of our purpose and destiny and life and death that there is a lot of wiggle room for people who haven’t [read it].”
Simone Alene, who plays Rosencrantz, agreed.
“There are a lot of universal topics in the show that you can recognize and pick out and follow and understand whether or not you have a rich theater background or theater education at all,” she said.
Both the show’s leading ladies are making their island stage debut in this production. Alene lives in Seattle, Sheppard lives in Bremerton, and they both found the audition notice online and came in, Challinor said, “out of the blue.”
Both actresses admitted to being previously just nominally acquainted with Stoppard’s play themselves.
“It’s one I briefly touched in my senior year English class and have known about, so it was intriguing,” Alene said, acknowledging the script’s weighty reputation in the theater world. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is that play that really smart people really like so I should read this and brush up on it again and audition for it.’”
“It certainly is a well talked about play in the theater world,” Sheppard concurred. “I’d read the script a few times in university and acted a few scenes, but was definitely a little newer to the script when I auditioned.”
Of the decision to switch up the gender of the leads, who are both traditionally men, the director said he’d made no such decision in advance, but was so impressed with both actresses he decided to cast them regardless.
The only thing he was opposed to, Challinor said, was a mixed-gender casting, feeling that would inevitably lead many to read possible romantic undertones in the characters’ interactions.
Alene and Sheppard said the opportunity Challinor’s decision presented them was unique and much appreciated.
“I always think it’s pretty noteworthy when a director casts women in traditionally male roles,” Sheppard said. “I think that’s becoming more and more of a thing, but it is slow … it’s not a thing that’s always available for women and that’s what’s cool about this new kind of modern theater is that they’re saying, ‘Screw that!’
“Bodies mean something on stage.”
“You can’t not notice that we are two young women being referred to as ‘gentlemen’ or ‘sir,’” added Alene.
The cast also includes Jesse Smith, Miguel Castillo, Nolan Chapa, Rachel Ruby Squires, Josh Moff, Roger Estrada, Megan Twamley, Bob Downing, Meredyth Yund, Walt Brown and Rob Burke.
The experience of being an actor in a show is often not unlike that of a person interacting with the real world, the director said, a theme this show explores more than most.
“[You are] meeting two characters, and those two characters try to figure things out and answers aren’t provided,” Challinor said. “How do I make sense out of the world when I’m only being provided incomplete information about it? But that’s what an actor has to do. You only have the script, but I have to play a character that existed long before the story started and keeps going afterward.”
Also, the actors interact with the audience, thus examining the nature of spectatorship.
“It’s a fun play to watch because they’re talking to me,” Challinor said. “I’m not just passively watching, I’m part of what’s going on. And it’s funny, it’s really, really, really funny — but it deals with really heavy stuff. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Death isn’t so funny; life is, life is hysterical. So you’re constantly moving between this really profoundly funny play and the fact that they’re dealign with really, really heavy, difficult, complicated things.”
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” opens at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1 at Rolling Bay Hall (10598 NE Valley Road). Shows are 7 p.m. Nov. 2-3; Nov. 7-10; and Nov. 14-16.
Admission is free, though donations are accepted, both online when reserving seats or in person at the performance. Visit www.indtheatre.org to learn more and to reserve seats.
This show is recommended for audiences of all ages. The running time is approximately 2 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions.