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KCAT turns Shakespeare inside out with Hamlet and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead 


Things may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but there's nothing stale or spoiled at Kansas City Actors Theatre, whose 10th season finds this consummate company freshly alive and vital in its dual productions of Hamletand Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

Both productions and both casts' performances make for some of the best theater recently staged. You don't have to see both plays, which rotate in repertory, but the twin masterpieces are complementary works that fit together like land and sea.

I opted for full immersion and took advantage of a weekend's "festival day," plunging into Shakespeare's Hamlet in the afternoon, then following up with playwright Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in the evening. That concentrated experience enhanced each for me; I found the experience exhilarating rather than exhausting. The plays can be seen in either order and on different days, but seeing Hamlet first helps inform R&G.

Hamlet's director, Mark Robbins, steers the tragedy with a keen hand. And he has taken on bit parts — including memorable appearances as the ghost of Hamlet's slain father (sound by Sarah Putts aids the effect) and the philosophizing gravedigger.

When we first meet this Hamlet, he looks like Eminem in a mood: hoodie, sunglasses, jeans, sneakers, spouting his lines with rhythmic alienation. It fits for this man, this king's son whose cherished father recently died and whose mother has just married his uncle, who has taken the throne.

Having starred this summer as the inventor in the Coterie Theatre's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jake Walker calls on his serious side, pivoting with seeming ease to utter Shakespeare's language with the grace of a natural. His portrayal is so fluid, so much in the character's skin, that we are allowed to connect with the prince as though invited to join his small circle. We empathize with him — his grief, depression, disgust, righteousness, anger, indecisiveness, love — as he searches for himself and for his place in Denmark. We get him.

We feel along as well with the stellar cast that populates Hamlet (and R&G, which uses the same actors in the same roles). Walter Coppage radiates appropriate pomposity as the uncle-king's adviser, Polonious — who is also the father of Laertes (Matt Lindblom, forceful and intense) and Hamlet's love interest, Ophelia (a vulnerable Dianne Yvette). As Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and her new husband, Claudius, Cinnamon Schultz and Scott Cordes are regal yet politician-slick in their self-satisfaction.

Providing some comic relief is a troupe of traveling actors — the Tragedians, or Players — set to perform at court in a play within a play. They can't help but entertain with Brian Paulette as their leader, his magnetic presence and actor's voice ideal for this character (especially when he reappears in Stoppard's play). And Will Fritz, as a troupe member, gets laughs with his silent-movie overreaching. As Hamlet's steady good friend Horatio, a sure Kyle Dyck anchors the goings-on and emotional upheavals swirling about. In this interpretation, Horatio keeps a camera at the ready; he's the ever-present confidant and historian, the recorder of deeds. "And let me speak to the yet unknowing world how these things came about."

The modern infiltrates much of this old story here, communicating the sense that this could all happen today. The attire (costumes by Lauren Roark) is mostly contemporary, and guns replace swords (except for the duel at the end, choreographed by Logan Black). We see digital cameras and invading soldiers wearing camouflage, and we hear the whir of overhead helicopters. These touches lend the tale, and the characters inhabiting it, grave immediacy, accentuated by a spartan set of wooden platforms (set design by Gary Mosby) that creates a sense of anyplace. There's music, too — emotive melodies, composed by Greg Mackender, that hold us with their reflective mood.

Tying together KCAT's productions are Hamlet's former school buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Vanessa Severo and Rusty Sneary, respectively), courtiers summoned by the king to snoop on Hamlet and discern the prince's state of mind and possible intentions. Those minor, quirky roles in Hamlet are brought to the fore in Stoppard's brilliant Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, expertly directed here by Richard Esvang. (The title comes from a line interjected in Hamlet's final scene.)

These two characters typically are portrayed by men, but the casting here of Sneary and Severo is so natural and seamless that you imagine the play is always done this way. These two actors, possessed of their characters and engaged in perfectly timed back-and-forth banter, lull us into the altered state that is Stoppard's script and don't let us go.

In the existential comedy that's often compared with Waiting for Godot, "uncertainty is the normal state" for the titular characters, who feel out of place when the show begins, and whose predicament has a here-and-now urgency.

The bare-bones set works especially well here, given that the two characters are unsure where they are or where to go or how to get there. (We don't know where they are, either.) All the while, they mull the nature of their reality — "the name we give to the common experience" — among other philosophical musings. Though not withdrawn like Hamlet, they feel a disengagement. They remember they "were summoned" by the king. And scenes from Hamlet — their memories, perhaps — flit in and out in a way that conjures dreaming.

Hamlet's cast re-enacts brief episodes that you've already seen (if you've attended that play first). But this time, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, removed from Shakespeare's events, view them from the outside. Paulette and his Tragedians show up here, too, playing a bigger role than they do in Hamlet, interacting in some significant ways with the hapless pair (and keeping us engaged as well).

You might not understand it all, but that doesn't matter. It's enough to just sit back and luxuriate in Stoppard's language and humorous reflections, and in watching these two clueless and struggling characters try to figure out what the hell is going on.

"What a fine persecution," Guildenstern says, "to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened." This play is a captivating ride with them, the kind that finds one reluctant, at its end, to disembark. And there's no shortage of enlightenment in what KCAT has done with this project.