The Wilma Theater’s production of “Hamlet” closed earlier this month, but that didn’t quite bring the curtain down on the Prince of Denmark. When it rises again this week, the title character of Shakespeare’s masterpiece will be relegated to the background, and two minor characters will take the lead for Tom Stoppard’s post-modern comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” 

In the Bard’s telling of the story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are childhood friends of Hamlet’s who are enlisted to betray the Prince. Stoppard’s play, which premiered in 1966, takes its title from a line in the final scene of Shakespeare’s play spelling out the duo’s offstage fate. While scenes from “Hamlet” recur throughout “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” most of Stoppard’s play concerns the confusion and uncertainty experienced by the two characters as those machinations happen around them.

Wilma artistic director Blanka Zizka’s decision to stage the two plays back-to-back provides a rare opportunity for the cast (many of whom are returning from “Hamlet”) to explore the same characters over the course of two very different plays. 

“In theater, you have essentially four weeks to figure this person out, figure out why they’re doing the things they’re doing, what they want, how they’re going to get it, why they’re doing it that way,” says Keith J. Conallen, who plays Rosencrantz in both shows. “We’re getting so much more time to truly investigate how these people tick. We’re going much deeper than a surface level psychology; we’re going down to the marrow.”

 

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Retaining the same cast for both shows (aside from Zainab Jah, who won’t be returning as Hamlet) is part of Zizka’s ongoing attempt to create a resident company of actors trained in the Wilma’s physical, vocal and emotional approach. The actors worked with vocal teacher Jean-René Toussaint and attended workshops with Theodoros Terzopoulos of the Attis Theatre in Greece, who will direct next season’s “Antigone.”

Conallen, together with actors Jered McLenigan (Guildenstren) and Ed Swidey (First Player), also engaged in a two-week rehearsal for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” prior to rehearsals for “Hamlet,” allowing them to develop the characters with both plays in mind.

“They’re very different worlds and are different characters,” Conallen says, “but we found little hints that we could give the audiences of ‘Hamlet’ to intrigue them into what they could expect from ‘R and G Are Dead.’ It’s fun and interesting to see these two grown men dealing with their frustration and confusion and boredom in a comical way.
 

 

If you go

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"

May 20-June 14

Wilma Theater

265 South Broad St.

$25, 215-546-7824

www.wilmatheater.org