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Minor Characters Ask The Big Questions In Existential Comedy

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of a classic of existential comedy.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead debuts tomorrow at Illinois State University's Westoff Theater.  The play gives a view of Shakespeare's Hamlet from the perspective of two minor -- and somewhat dimwitted -- characters.  

Written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Paul Dennhardt, the show features a worm's eye view of Hamlet, forcing the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make sense of the world around them and try to come to grips with  inevitable death.

"They find themselves displaced in time and in reality," said Dennhardt. "You know how your life flashes before your eyes before you die? It's like they pulled the lever and the trap door fell and they went down and they hit, and before they die, they remember all this. It's about how we deal with this idea that we're here on this rock and it moves and we're moving, but we really have no control.  We're going to die, and we deal with it with humor."

The show also includes other characters from Hamlet, including the wandering troupe of players. "We're playing a lot with gender in this, "said Dennhardt. "We have women playing players who are cross dressing as men, men who are cross dressing as women, one woman is kind of in between.  We're setting this in the 20's and 30's in Europe -- think Cabaret decadence."

Although the play deals with heavy themes of life and death, it's still a comedy, and a crisp one at that, noted Dennhardt. "I told the actors it's like West Wing on speed.  You know how everyone was walking and talking and you're just keeping up.  That's what I'm playing with here. I hate park and bark theater.  I hate when actors just stand stock still and talk.  I believe in the primacy of words, but I like to see the actors moving, and so we're constantly in motion and we're speaking at a very brisk pace. I think we'll have a quick, entertaining and engaging evening at the theater."  

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs Feb. 17 - 25 in ISU's Westoff Theater.

Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.