- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2015

Nearly 50 years after playwright Tom Stoppard’s original production of his tragicomedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Aaron Posner believes he has found a way to attract audiences of all ages to the production he has directed at the District’s Folger Shakespeare Theatre.

“The play is a riff on the nature of life and death, while also a linguistic fun house that bounces with ease from existential angst to pirate attacks without missing a beat,” said Mr. Posner, a four-time Helen Hayes Award winner.

Although American theater typically draws older audiences, Mr. Posner wanted to focus on how this is a young person’s play, written by a 27-year-old Mr. Stoppard, that asks “young people’s questions.” Thus, he ingeniously cast two relatable young men, Romell Witherspoon and Adam Wesley Brown, to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively.

The play focuses on the actions of the “bewildered duo,” with the events of “Hamlet” as background. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s famous play will be especially amused. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are minor characters in “Hamlet,” are now at the forefront while Hamlet has only a bit part.

“I think one of the interesting things [is] the title of the play,” said Mr. Brown, who portrays Guildenstern. “Even looking at the poster or your program, you know exactly what’s going to happen to these two from the word go. I think you don’t get that a lot.”

Aaron’s idea was to use a couple of young fellers and have them explore the notion that a lot of humans get into their 20s and suddenly realize they don’t have any idea what it means to be an adult,” said Ian Merrill Peakes, who stars as The Player. “That’s the period when we all try to figure it out, but I’m 46. I still haven’t figured it out yet.”

The existential questions that this play brings to light, such as one’s mortality and sense of direction in life, are relatable to all ages, the cast says.

“It doesn’t matter the age; you can find something to tap into no matter what,” said Mr. Peakes. “I think every person at every age explores what life is and what death is.

“There is a sense of loss, bewilderment and befuddlement in what do we do and on what the answers are to the questions that are constantly inundating our lives.”

The Folger production aims “to encourage people to ask these questions and to not end up like [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern],” Mr. Peakes said with a laugh. “It’s to not let life pass you by and to bite the ass out of life. You’re in charge of your life, and you have to live it.”

“You’re never treading water in life. You’re either going forward or you’re going backward, because the Earth doesn’t stop turning,” said Mr. Witherspoon. “Very often, people look up and time has blazed by them, and this play kind of puts into perspective a little bit that you can look up and it can all be over.”

Mr. Peakes said it was key to his artistic vision that he more fully engage his audience in the thematics of the play.

“Telling this story to this particular audience — the Folger audience — I find to be incredibly intelligent, and they understand the language and the play with the language,” he said. “They certainly understand ‘Hamlet.’ So the stuff that this audience is going to get in particular is absolutely treatworthy,” Mr. Peakes said. “It’s probably 10 percent more fun if you’ve seen ‘Hamlet.’”

The 250-seat Elizabethan-style Folger Theatre provides such an intimate atmosphere that the show becomes a more interactive experience than in larger theaters. From the hilarity of the dumb show portion of the play, in which the tragedians act with no spoken dialogue, to the utter despair and silence of the final scene, the audience and the actors are connected within the small space.

“Intimacy is so intriguing in storytelling — and we’re all sharing the same air,” Mr. Peakes said of the cozy production. “When you get in a humongous space, it can be great, but for me, my dream is to work in this kind of space as often as possible because you can hear everybody breathing. You’re sharing the space in a way that is incredibly special.

“We can feel a smile in this space,” he said. “And the silence also in this space is sort of hauntingly wonderful. When it gets quiet in here, you cannot hear a thing — it’s really exciting.”

When asked how this production of the tragicomedy differs from previous realizations of Mr. Stoppard’s words, Mr. Peakes said the timeliness of its themes will resonate with contemporary audiences.

“What’s really exciting is that we are getting it right this time,” said Mr. Peakes, who also played Rosencrantz in Mr. Posner’s 2002 production. “It’s a cautionary tale. Take the bull by the horns and make your own choices, because those consequences are a lot easier to live with than somebody else’s choices that affect your life.”


WHAT: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”

WHERE: The Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, DC 20003

WHEN: Through June 28

INFO: Tickets $35 to $75 by calling 202/544-4600 or visiting Folger.edu

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