Radical 50 years ago, 'Rosencrantz' takes shape under young, queer director
Feature story, photos by Mary Babic
The rehearsal starts, and ends, with a booming basso profundo laugh that bounces around the building. It’s coming from the front row, where Ingrid Oslund -- director of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the AFD Theatre in Arlington -- is leading a series of rollicking and noisy exercises.
The agile, energetic cast is stomping, grunting, and reaching for the golden ball of wit that will galvanize the audience and light up Stoppard’s famous wordplay and philosophy.
Simply put, Oslund is here to have fun -- and to get you in on the adventure.
“It’s a giant game of clowning,” she says about the classic tragicomedy from Tom Stoppard, now in its 52nd year. “And you want to know what’s the next game, what’s the next bit of clowning.”
She highlights that, above all, the play works as a comedy. "You can look to the philosophical wordplay, and put a lot of things on it, but it simply works best as a comedy -- as a series of games."
Indeed, Oslund has cast a delightfully odd and zany bunch of actors to bring physical play, emotional weight, tremendous chemistry -- and joy -- to the stage. And AFD has pulled in seasoned, award-winning theatre veterans to enhance her vision, and bring the pieces to life.
A blast of young actors breathe fresh life into a classic
From the beginning, Oslund brought a radical spirit of fun to the enterprise, looking to play with gender, size and movement. "I needed a troupe of weirdos to come out of the woodwork and have fun," she says. At the auditions, she put actors in groups and tried “image theater” games where they were given words and struck a pose. “Everyone had to die beautifully,” she says. "Every single one brought something different and wonderful to the table. They're all working together well and becoming one organism, that moves together, breathes together."
Nov. 19, 2018: BEHIND THE SCENES: Fresh, seasoned talent in AFD tragicomedy
She was especially concerned about updating the Lead Player, who has problematic lines about women in the play. “I wanted to play in the gray with the gender aspect …. We can’t cut the lines, but we can play with the lines if everyone is fluid.” She looked for a genderqueer actor, referring to the lines “transvestite melodrama” (“It needs someone in queer community to say that.”)
Sara Kerr, who was ultimately cast as the Lead Player, presents in a gender nonconforming way. She and Oslund have worked on several projects together, and have similar taste in theater and a kinship “in what we want to see on stage.”
“The Lead Player is still the ultimate actor, so we haven’t changed the pronouns in any way,” she notes. “This person can play any role to perfection … I love playing with gender, I think gender is fun.”
She notes they decided to take many of the cuts that are allowed in the very long script – but not all, “Because some took out the queer subtext between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and while we don’t think they’re queer, it helps to keep it in there, it subverts the masculinity.”
Oslund notes, that while the audience may not understand the full impact of playing in the gray area of gender, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day, because “it’s going to be funny, no matter what.”
The original call for the audition invited those with a genderqueer presentation, “which was a big deal in the queer community,” she notes. “It gave them a safe space to come in. A good number of actors all over the gender spectrum auditioned.”
For the leads, chemistry reigns
For the leading roles, she put chemistry between the two actors above all.
“I went in casting two individuals, but wanted find two people who could work well together, two strong actors who would make sense together.” She cites the chemistry that was quickly apparent between the two actors playing Rosencrantz (Mackenzie Carroll) and Guildenstern (Jaymes Sanchez), and how they're developing a relationship through the weeks together. She had previously worked with Sanchez in a writers group, “and he killed his audition.” Carroll, she says, “is open to anything.”
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two little pawns getting moved around different worlds that all have different rules. What are the rules? What are they allowed to do? what are they supposed to be doing? These two actors are so good, and so good together.”
About the Tragedians (the troupe of players), she notes: Victoria Isotti is a dancer and soprano who brings so much emotion; Rebecca Greene is a little bundle of energy; Erica Wisor makes big choices, and weird body shapes; Paul Dingman is so smart, and so aware of everything and everybody on the stage; Sebastian Espinosa is our incredible, flexible music director, in addition to his hilarious turn as a Tragedian; Matthew Lundergan (Alfred) has a fun sense of humor, and is always willing to go there.
Oslund has established that this is a physical production, gives them a lot of freedom to try things. “Let’s play and see where we can find a real collaborative process.”
The King and Queen (the Royals) take the stage as larger than life characters. “They come in and out so quickly, it’s important to make it feel like we know exactly who they are, as they don’t get much stage time.” She notes that Alfred and the Queen don’t interact, but they do parallel movements. “It was a big part of rehearsal – the detail work of precise movement and mirroring."
Oslund hopes the fresh approach to casting will resonate with younger audiences. “Every theater has to take a stand on representation on stage. The more inclusive it is, the more young people it will attract. I know people who will buy a ticket if they think they’ll see themselves.”
Putting all the pieces together
After years working in a variety of makeshift spaces, Oslund welcomes the dedicated space – and deep well of talent – that come with mounting a production at AFD. “It’s amazing to have privacy and space. I’m usually rehearsing in rooms in universities or community centers, after hours. We’re just waiting for the knock on the door to kick us out.” She’s worked in an old City Sports store, and has built a light board using duct tape.
For costume design, she tapped the talents of a well-known award-winning designer, Linda Burtt (last seen on the AFD stage as Martha Gillette in The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays in December 2017). Burtt is building most of the costumes from scratch, as she had a very specific and demanding vision, that of “Elizabethan on crack.” She notes, “The idea is Elizabethan on top, and modern underneath. We’re aiming for the ‘Uncanny Valley’ – the space between reality and not reality.”
The costumes are designed to express character, as well as mood, location, situation. Each setting, and character, is working on a different plane. The Players are wearing tattered, faded muslin; Burtt is piecing the costumes together from a variety of sources, as the distressed look speaks to the troupe. She’s also using classic signs of clowning, such as bells and hankies.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are wearing blues, such as jean jackets that have been made into doublets; and their sleeve linings have skeletons on them. The two actors are very different in shape and size, “but we dress them the same, as there’s a running joke that you can’t tell them apart.” The Royals are wearing strong colors, with the Elizabethan shape on top, but underneath they’re wearing leggings and jeans that are torn and ragged. The King – a “snake in the grass” – wears a vest made of snakeskin material.
For sets and lighting, Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, another area veteran of community theater, came in with his own concept. When he asked Oslund if it was going too far, she said, “Let’s go let’s do it.” Each world has a different color scheme; it’s all inspired by the line in the play: “Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?” The stage is littered with boxes of all sizes and shapes.
At 52, the play is still asking big questions
Oslund does say that the play “never quite appealed to me” -- until last year, when the Hampshire Shakespeare Company tackled a dual production of the play along with the original Hamlet. As Oslund directed the Shakespeare classic, the same cast participated in Rosencrantz on alternating nights. While she hadn’t been interested in Stoppard (or many straight white male modern playwrights) previously, as she got to know the text, she found the connections “really interesting,” and decided she’d like to direct it as a stand-alone play (“As long as reinterpretation is allowed,” she says). A few weeks later, AFD put out the call for directors.
“What brings me to it is stylized movement. There’s a lot of dudes sitting around talking in the play, but I wanted to make sure it MOVES .… The script has a lot of direction, but leaves the Tragedians standing in the background.”
She draws on a body of work of tableaus of Elizabethan players, where actors struck poses. She studied Elizabethan theatrical movement at Emerson, where she assistant directed an-all female Richard the Third.
Oslund, who studied “movement-based pedagogy,” made sure that the first few rehearsals brought the actors together and put them through a lot of games, “getting to know how to move naturally, with exercises inspired by Elizabethan theater.” The stage is small, but “we’re making it work with the bodies we have. The actors are flexible and dexterous enough to make it work.” She notes that villains and heroes move differently. “Heroes are up here, chin up high, with lots of angles. Villains are low, bent at strange angles, and their movements are reptilian.”
She’s interested in working with actors who are not dancers – putting movement on pedestrian bodies. “I like to pervert movement, to make it different – ugly.” Oslund herself says she is super physical, as a dancer of many disciplines: ballet, modern, hip hop, jazz, tap.
Stitching together a living at theater in Boston
Originally from Minneapolis, Oslund, 26, came to Boston to attend Suffolk University for her undergraduate degree and Emerson for her graduate degree. She refers to mentors in the theater world who encouraged her to do theater for a living. “Don’t give up, keep working at it,” Maureen Shea, professor and head of theater studies department of performing arts at Emerson College) and Patricia Weinmann, artistic director of Boston Opera Collaborative.
Currently, she’s managing to stitch together a living in the theater, working as a director, choreographer, fight choreographer, playwright, sound designer, teacher – and more.
“My whole life is piecing together enough gigs to pay the bills, sometimes I’ve had to direct things I don’t necessarily want to do. But I’m so lucky to be able to do this full time and always find the joy in it. She does sound design for her shows, and sometimes runs up against old guard being dubious she can do it. “That’s when the concept of ‘Minnesota Nice’ serves me well,” she says.
She’s been a company member with Theater on Fire, a unit writer with Company One in Boston, and she’s worked with Boston Opera Collaborative, Open Theatre Project, Theatre@First, Twin Cities Horror Festival and the Fresh Fruit Festival, NYC.
In general, she notes, “Theater doesn’t show enough extremes. It’s my punk rock, what I’m interested in making. Radical interpretation of the classics, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to modern British canon.” She also writes plays, and says that “as a playwright, you want your intentions to be known. But you also have to let it go when others find and illuminate things you didn’t know were there.”
“As a queer female director, I worry I’ll be only directing niche shows – shows about female empowerment or queer plays. While I want to be directing this content, as there is a major disparity in theater, I don’t want to be limited and don’t ever want it to be for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to be a gimmick,” she says, adding simply, “I want to make good theater.”
This news feature was published Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018.
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