Absurdist Masterpiece Headed to Persephone Theatre Stage

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Alyssa Billingsley and Tim Bratton play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (R & G Photo) Photo Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

A play that is being billed as “a brilliantly funny comedy about the ultimate identity crisis” is coming to the Persephone Theatre stage in May.

Tom Stoppard’s modern masterpiece, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, tells the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters. In the Persephone production — which is directed by Del Surjik — local theatre artists Alyssa Billingsley and Tim Bratton play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively.

“I was thrilled and a little intimidated to be cast as Guildenstern. This is a big role in an iconic play,” said Bratton. “It’s both a great privilege and a wonderful challenge to take on this role.”

Bratton described the play as one that makes audience members laugh, but also makes them think. 

“Some comedies are just good fun; they tickle your funny bone and give you a wonderful time of enjoyment and escape. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a really funny comedy, but it’s more than that — it’s also a very thoughtfully-written play that will leave you contemplating the meaning of life itself,” he said. 

“You can see the play as a bit of a thought experiment that you can enjoy talking about and wrestling with long after the curtain has fallen.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has been compared to Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s classic play in which two characters wait for someone named Godot. As they wait, the two men talk about their lives and debate whether Godot will show up — and what they should do if he arrives. The play conjures up a number of big questions, including those centred on the meaning of life and the purpose of existence. And, like Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has also been described as an existentialist tragicomedy.

Billingsley said it’s “a real gift” to have the opportunity to perform in such a well-written play. 

“Stoppard has brilliantly constructed comedic devices within the story that give me absolute pleasure to put into practice,” she said.

“I have a particular love for clown and physical comedy. This is not a clown show, but there are conventions used in the play that are reminiscent of physical comedy techniques. It’s the physical comedy combined with the endearing aspects of Rosencrantz’s character that feed me most as an artist. Also, let’s not forget what a privilege it is to be a working actor with such talented and wonderful humans. That, in itself, is something I’m extraordinarily grateful for.”

In addition to Billingsley and Bratton, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead stars Kent Allen, Lisa Bayliss, Adreanna Boucher, Jaron Francis, Courtney Lato, Katelyn Polischuk, Gordon Portman, Robbie Towns, Leon Willey and Kevin Williamson. 

Bayliss, who plays the character Gertrude, is also Persephone Theatre’s director of marketing and development. She said “some of the best designers in the country” have been brought in for the show.

“Ted Roberts, set and lighting designer, has created a visually stunning world on stage, incorporating huge Stonehenge monoliths, the castle of Elsinore and a ship at sea. Bonnie Deakin, who designed costumes for Treasure Island and Fiddler on the Roof, has designed gorgeous medieval costumes, and Gilles Zolty, composer and sound designer, has written stunning original music,” she said.

Bayliss noted that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is part of the absurdist tradition, a theatrical movement centred in Paris in the mid-20th century. In the theatre of the absurd, characters may seem illogical or hopeless, and they may appear to be without purpose or out of harmony with their own existence.

“You could say there’s something inherently absurd about theatre. The practice of one set of people impersonating another set of people, performing for a watching audience, offers plenty of opportunity to explore the boundary between illusion and reality – still more so when that performance is conducted behind an invisible ‘fourth wall,’ ” said Bayliss.

“Absurdist theatre responded to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century by questioning the nature of reality and illusion. It breaks through the fourth wall and acknowledges that we are actors creating a reality on stage.

“Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead examines the dizzying possibilities of what might happen if two minor characters from Hamlet are released from the prison of the play, only to find that they are trapped. They become increasingly bewildered and out of their depth as they struggle to understand their existence. This creates highly entertaining comedy and deep, poignant theatrical moments for the audience.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs from May 1 – 15 in Rawlco Radio Hall at Remai Arts Centre. Tickets range from $30 – $54 and can be purchased by calling 306-384-7727, or by going to persephonetheatre.org.