In “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” playwright Tom Stoppard approaches “Hamlet” through an Abbott and Costello lens, says Peter DuBois, whose Huntington Theatre production begins performances Friday.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at first seem clownish,” says DuBois, “because they are constantly confused about who and where they are. They are trapped in a world in which they have no control and don’t really have any idea what they are supposed to be doing.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Shakespeare’s tragic story of “Hamlet,” onetime schoolmates of the Danish prince, enlisted by his uncle Claudius to find out what’s troubling the young man. The friends witness “The Murder of Gonzago,” the play Hamlet hopes will “catch the conscience of the king,” but become more confused when they seem to appear as characters in that drama. Later, they naively agree to carry a letter for Claudius, not knowing it contains Hamlet’s death sentence, which Hamlet switches with one for the duo instead.
Stoppard layers in comments on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” and nods to Harold Pinter, existentialism, and philosophers Socrates, Plato, and David Hume, while blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s imaginary, all driven by slapstick comedy.
“It’s terrifyingly funny,” says DuBois, the Huntington’s artistic director.
Jeremy Webb, who plays Guildenstern, says the challenge is learning lines while also feeling like someone who is suffering from memory loss.
“We actually try hard to play into that,” he says. “A famous British actress said she tries to convince herself she’s forgotten her next line, so that what comes out feels spontaneous and natural. But it’s risky. You have to have enormous trust in your scene partner.”
Just when the audience thinks they have a handle on these characters, with one seeming to be a bit slower to react than the other, the tables are turned, and one is suddenly speaking in the other’s voice.
Alex Hurt, who plays Rosencrantz, says when he first talked to DuBois about the role, DuBois explained that it was like an actor’s nightmare — that feeling that you don’t know what’s coming next.
Although they only met at the first reading of the play a few weeks ago, Hurt (the son of actor William Hurt) and Webb say they think about the characters nearly 24 hours a day. The two are housed in the same apartment building, and they often go up to the roof to run lines and try out physical comedy possibilities.
“Alex will send me a link to an Abbott and Costello routine, and then I send him one from Monty Python,” says Webb.
Even during a conversation at a lunch break, the duo pitch ideas to DuBois.
“Hey, can we juggle?” says Webb.
“I know how to juggle,” says Hurt.
“Do you know how to pass?” says Webb.
“I can learn,” says Hurt.
DuBois is open to trying it.
“I like a rehearsal room with a little chaos,” DuBois says. “There are so many minds working on the characters and these scenes. When we are all contributing, we come up with the best bits.”
Of course, he says, it helps that he has surrounded Hurt and Webb with a cast of mostly Boston actors, each of whom brings their own versatility and comic style into the room. The ensemble includes Ken Cheeseman, Laura Latreille, Will LeBow, Melinda Lopez, Dale Place, Omar Robinson, among others.
“We’re starting with clean comedy,” says Webb. “And then we build on the terrible, truthful circumstances these two friends find themselves in, described in Stoppard’s elevated and challenging text.”
“When we get it right,” says Hurt, “it’s the feeling of catching a wave. When I can pick up right as he’s finishing his thought, it just flows.”
Company bears Derrah’s name
Thomas Derrah, the beloved Boston actor, director, and educator who died in 2017, is remembered as much for his generosity as a teacher as he is for his breathtaking performances. To honor his legacy, his husband, John Kuntz, is launching The Derrah Theatre Lab.
“Tommy was so gifted,” says Kuntz. “I want to turn missing him into a positive thing that honors him and his spirit by producing the kind of theater he liked to make.”
The company’s inaugural performance will be a staged reading of “Pru Payne,” at Boston Playwrights Theatre Oct. 28. A new play by Steven Drukman, it will feature Karen MacDonald in the title role, along with Will LeBow, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Greg Maraio, and Kuntz. The story focuses on an art critic who is suffering from dementia while she tries to reconnect with her son and consider what her legacy should be.
“Tommy would enjoy this play because it’s so theatrical,” says Kuntz. “By that I mean it’s the kind of script that only works on the stage.”
Kuntz will serve as artistic director, and his friend Maraio will be associate artistic director. While the new company is still in its infancy, Kuntz says he is already planning an educational component to honor Derrah’s approach to nurturing the next generation of theater artists.
In Concord, back to ‘Nature’
If you’ve ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a play now being staged at the Old Manse in Concord offers that opportunity. The touring production of “Nature” is being presented by TigerLion Arts on the grounds where Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote some of their most celebrated works. It also had a run there in 2017. The 90-minute “walking play,” which is performed outdoors, was created and is performed by Tyson Forbes, a direct descendant of Emerson. The play is described as an exploration of “humankind’s relationship to nature through the eyes of two of America’s greatest environmental voices and friends,” Emerson (Forbes) and Thoreau (Jason Rojas). It runs through Sept. 29. For more information, go to www.thetrustees.org.
ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Huntington Avenue Theatre, Sept. 20-Oct. 20. Tickets $20-$135, 617-933-8600, www.huntingtontheatre.org