Finding Meaning in Limbo
“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” Gives Afterlife To The Forgotten
We do not often think of the fates of supporting characters in shows. This is because these characters are originally meant for simple support; they are there to aid the actions of the main characters, those who we focus our attention and emotion on. Tom Stafford’s deeply philosophical “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” raises the issue that we should care about these characters. Stafford strips away the Bard’s fluffy dialogue to give the duo distinct, real, and conflicting personalities.
This concept is central in the new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead done by Georgetown University’s nomadicTheater ensemble. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played masterfully by Sean Craig and Taylor Rasmussen, are in limbo. While one normally pictures limbo to be an ordered state, it is quite the opposite in the vision of director Kathleen Joyce. Her limbo for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is chaotic to the “t.” Like Claudius at first meeting, the two begin to confuse who they are: the chaos of not knowing the self. Furthermore, certain moments are repeated or mirrored to edited exactness, cementing the repetition of the limbo the two inhabit.
The pair’s journey through the show serves as both a meditation on the unseen actions of characters as well the matter of choice. Near the play’s conclusion, as they recount the events that led them to their untimely deaths in the Bard’s original script, Guildenstern puts forth, “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, were we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it.”
The two do not inhabit limbo because they have committed misdeeds – as Catholics do purgatory – it is hinted strongly by Joyce and Stafford that this is the realm where forgotten characters must live. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern work their way back through the events of “Hamlet,” both their on-stage actions and their thoughts behind the curtain, we observe them interact with the many of the familiar characters. However these characters are mere shades in their limbo; sent not as tormentors but as visions of events they are forced to relive.
Chaos, in Joyce’s vision of the show, masquerades as a thing of order and reason. Much like the pair, Guildenstern being the analytical, rational one and Rosencrantz the more simple, the reason of the pair is oft offset by their own chaotic interaction and their situation. To not know where you are, and sometimes who you are, creates chaos in contrast to the ordered world of Hamlet which they must repeat.
The rather block-like set appears to have been designed by MC Escher, with multitudes of stairs leading or jutting off of various parts of the stage. Direction, perspective, and concreteness of reality dissipate through the set, an ideal setting for the lost souls cast aside by Shakespeare. The chaos of limbo is explored as soon as the audience enters the theater, when we encounter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend their time flipping coins. The flipping of coins persists throughout the show as a testing of the “rules,” or lack of, by the two as a means of trying to position themselves.
Alongside Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the Player (Grayson Ullman, bringing us and the character to the depths of depravity and madness) and his band of Tragedians. The Player and his band of miserable men stand next to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as both meta-narrative as well as further meditation on the characters. As meta-narrative, the Player reveals to the unknowing duo the ultimate fate of them and their lord through the “Murder of Gonzago,” bending the lines of the narrative and their lives to the breaking point.
The Player ties the nature of the character to the nature of the actor; the actor exists and only continues to do so as long as someone is watching. These characters only exist when or because someone is watching, which is shown throughout the interwoven plays. The only certainty in what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do and say comes at the times when we all see them ; when they are active, onstage characters in the world of “Hamlet.” These characters exist only in this limbo – and therefore on the borders of non-/existence – because we have stopped seeing them. Until this play was originally staged in the 60s, few would have cared about Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, or the Player.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead: that much is clear. Do they deserve their fate though? As the pair discovers their intended fate of execution, Rosencrantz puts forth “What did we do to deserve this?” As people, it is hard to pass that judgment on them. As characters, it is because their creator tossed them aside like ragdolls. A warning to authors: Treat your characters well. They may take on lives of their own.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Georgetown University’s Divine Studio Theater in the Davis Performing Arts Center. The show runs October 31st – November 1st at 8pm, November 2nd at 2pm, and November 6th-9th at 8pm.
Originally published on this site in 2013