Provocative themes make a 1960s play more appealing to SMU students

Profane and provocative elements made Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” onstage in SMU’s Greer Garson Theater through March 4, more appealing to SMU students today.

The Tony Award-winning play borrows from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” focusing on the two lords, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and their unfortunate fate. This production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard is completely student run. All the actors are current MFA and BFA students, and the costumes and lights were done by graduate students. The students were able to add comedy to something that is ultimately tragic.

Theater and opera director Kara-Lynn Vaeni has directed productions all over the country, from New York and Florida to Montana and now, here in Dallas. She is currently a professor at SMU and Yale University. She has been a key component in the production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” here at SMU.

“’Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ was not my first choice, but we landed somewhere in between Shakespeare and newer writers and I had fun making it more relatable,” Vaeni said.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of the Danish prince’s close childhood friends. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wander through the forests of Denmark flipping coins to pass time on their journey to Elsinore, the royal castle of Denmark. Each time the coin lands on heads, Rosencrantz wins it while Guildenstern thinks about the improbability of the coin never landing on tails. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t know why they were summoned to the castle and what their purpose of going there was. Along the way, when they were lost in the forest, they meet the Tragedians, who are a group of actors that are led by the Player, and ask them for help to get to the Elsinore castle.

Mac Welch BFA ’20, is the assistant director and musical director of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Welch and the rest of the drama department decided to revisit this play from the 1960s because the themes are timeless. It’s not necessarily a political play, Welch said, but rather just about being a human.

“The original script was very British, and very dry. Very wordy and very heavy,” Welch said. “But the director read it and decided that it was a genius script and there was only one way to make it possible and easy to follow.”

The directors decided to make this play more current to today by adding many different songs that are popular in today’s culture performed throughout the production such as “I’m On A Boat” by The Lonely Island and “Float” by Modest Mouse. The design also made the costumes more modern.

“In order to make the play more modern, we made the actors say [explicit language] a lot,” Vaeni said.

Once Vaeni discovered her students could also sing and play music she added a live band.

“The set is very dangerous and has lots of moving parts sort of like a big jungle gym,” Vaeni said. “I was very nervous watching the actors go up 10-15 feet in the air with no mats or anything.”

Haley Stephenson, SMU sophomore, thought the production was very well done. Stephenson’s favorite part of the play was the scene where Rosencrantz (Yusef Seevers) and Guildenstern (Diego Martinez) played their question game. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern asked each other questions, none of which could be rhetorical to help pass the time as well as help them seek truth of their identities.

“I thought the production as a whole was very well done,” Stephenson said. “Every actor was consumed by their character.”

The costumes were designed and created by graduate students. Stephenson thought the costumes were very interesting.

“They were pretty simple but at the same time helped convey the time period and status of each character,” Stephenson said. “I thought the queen and king’s costumes were very entertaining and elegant yet modern.”

Stephenson also thought the actors were very brave. “I thought it was very bold and daring of some of the actors to climb so high with nothing below them,” Stephenson said.

Vaeni was also impressed with the cast.

“This is going to sound cheesy,” Vaeni said. “My cast is so awesome, they’re really curious, and bring a lot of intelligence and physical bravery.”

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