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Theater preview: Hamlet x 2: To be AND not to be
What we have here is an abundance of Hamlets.
It's pretty strange for a single town to have more than one Hamlet, but what we are facing here is even bigger — two Ophelias, two Gertrudes and, most alarming of all, two Rosencrantzes and two Guildensterns.
It's all Hamlet, all the time in Orlando for the next few weeks, while Orlando Shakespeare Theater is presenting that most famous of all dramas and Mad Cow Theatre is presenting its doppelganger, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
So both Avery Clark and Jamie Cline are playing Hamlet. Both Michael Marinaccio and Regan McLellan are playing Rosencrantz. Both Timothy Williams and Michael Gill are playing Guidenstern. And directors at both theaters are explaining why there's so much focus on one 410-year-old British play.
Jim Helsinger, artistic director at Orlando Shakes, compares Hamlet to the Mona Lisa, whose image you see monkeyed with far and wide.
"It's the most famous piece of art. Hamlet is the most famous play ever written. It talks about universal issues. And a play that becomes classic means that everything there is to be said in it isn't said the first time you see it."
So when Hamlet fans wonder what happened to the characters before the story begins, Helsinger says, you get David Davalos's play Wittenberg (which Orlando Shakes produced last season) or John Updike's novel Gertrude and Claudius.
And when Hamlet fans wonder about the play's other characters, you get Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Stoppard takes two of Hamlet's slightest characters — his interchangeable school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — and sends them skyrocketing through an existential tragicomedy in which neither of them is sure what is happening and nobody knows who's who. The play, which originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966 and moved to London in 1967, won the Tony Award for best play on Broadway in 1968.
Richard Width, who is directing Hamlet, says it's no wonder that Stoppard, and so many others, have used Hamlet as a jumping-off point. Width, who used to direct educational programming at Orlando Shakes and now teaches drama at Trinity Preparatory School, says he has directed Hamlet with casts of teenagers probably 30-35 times.
"The educator in me says it's the play they're going to encounter in their educational careers — and the permutations the poetry takes you on touch on every kind of thought. Hamlet is a journey from being a child to being an adult. It's not black or white; it's a mixture of the two. It's 'to be' and 'not to be.' That's the most valuable tool for adolescents."
And why did Stoppard choose the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
"They're very rich," Width says. "They clearly have a life, a story outside the play that we never see. It makes such fertile ground."
In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at the Danish court and are swept up into intrigue. Hamlet's stepfather, Claudius, asks them to spy on their friend, and then he sends them off to England with Hamlet and a sealed letter — instructing the King of England to have Hamlet killed. If you've taken in Stoppard's title, you know the venture does not end well for the two courtiers.
At Mad Cow, director Alan Bruun has been fascinated with Stoppard's version of the play since he saw it as a teenager in San Francisco, where it was running in repertory with Hamlet. And his first order of business was to make sure his actors knew the earlier play. Their first read-through was Hamlet, not Stoppard's play, and he and assistant director Jay Becker have labored to make sure everyone knows where he or she is in the course of Shakespeare's play.
"The location where this is taking place is offstage," Bruun says. "We're watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wait around for their moment. The play of Hamlet washes in and washes out again."
It would be easy, he says, to turn Stoppard's play into a gimmick. They have worked hard for that not to be the case.
"You have to play fair by Hamlet," he says.
Meanwhile, the two theaters' marketing staffs are cooperating with one another: If you show one theater a program from the other, the box office will give you $5 off.
And Width has made sure that his version of Hamlet (like nearly all Shakespearean directors, he has cut some of the text) is in line with Mad Cow's production. Everything corresponds.
"The cut that I've created here meshes perfectly with the play that they're doing, so that the two really inform each other," Width says. "It's a great way to get people to go see more theater."
Elizabeth Maupin can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5426. Read her Attention Must Be Paid blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/attention and her Arts & Letters blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/artsandletters.
See for yourself
What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater's Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Where: Margeson Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 13 (also, senior matinee 2 p.m. Feb. 17; limited seats available)
Cost: $20-$38 general, $14 senior matinee
Call: 407-447-1700 Ext. 1
Also, what: Mad Cow Theatre's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 28 (also, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 and 22)
Cost: $24 and $26 general, $22 and $24seniors and students, $15 Mondays
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1
What a deal: Each of the two theaters offers $5 off a ticket if you show the program from the other theater's production.