The Kansas City Actors Theatre production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead examines the truth or folly of self-determination and the isolation of existence.

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is Shakespeare’s Hamlet seen from the viewpoint of two minor characters. Instead of seeing only their few quick scenes in Hamlet, we see the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they do: a continuum that includes the scenes with Hamlet, Claudius, et al.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet are in rotating repertory. They use the same actors, set and costumes, providing excellent continuity for those who see both plays.

Guildenstern (Rusty Sneary) is logical and analytical. Sneary is constantly growing as an actor, expanding his stylistic range. Rosencrantz (Vanessa Severo) is the emotional character who leads with her gut, not her head (usually). Severo has an instinct for comic timing and the ability to inspire more laughs, and more feeling, with a raised eyebrow than many can in a whole scene.

Severo is a great casting choice and a nice turnabout in both plays. The two names, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, have no real gender association, except for still-existing social power structures and the fact that in Shakespeare’s time all actors were men, including women’s roles. Severo is simply Rosencrantz, not a man or woman.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ongoing discussions offer a semester’s worth of statistics, philosophy and physics, with topics such as probability, agency, complexity, and uncertainty (no mention of Heisenberg, though). And they are aware that their fates are tied to the characters in Hamlet. As the play unfolded, I saw the two as direct descendants of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.

We must have come from back there
Laughing at their absurdist, circular conversations, where they periodically stop, sort of wake up, and go back to the top – a man banging on the shutters to wake them up, ordering them to see the king – and retrace their steps, I suddenly got it. It’s like they are stoned! It’s like Firesign Theatre! Dang, if I had only known, I would have come prepared.

Stoppard wrote the play in 1964. It first played at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 1966, with two Broadway runs in 1967 and 1968. When you think about it, it’s no stretch to think maybe quite a few were high in the audience. To enhance the communal experience today, maybe the audience could pass a few Js around before the show starts or bring some brownies. Just a thought.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really are dead
The ending highlights one other theme, the ultimate aloneness of existence. The two are alone briefly on a dark stage. Rosencrantz gives up questioning their fate, that they have died, and exits without a word, leaving Guildenstern by himself. When Rosencrantz leaves, something leaves with her. Throughout the play we have thought of them as a unit – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They even answer to each other’s names. And now it’s just Guildenstern. It’s too quiet.

We are all born alone and will die alone. At least Hamlet had his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Here, it’s not even a question and there is no answer. It just is.