Coming to an appreciation of Shakespeare has been a long process. Like most, I had to escape the dread of high school English class renderings of his language.
But also in high school, like many young women, I was enthralled by “Romeo and Juliet,” in part because the 1968 version of the movie by Franco Zeffirelli used teenagers close to the same age as the characters for the first time.
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” had a lot more impact on the silver screen with hunky Leonard Whiting taking Juliet’s breath away.
In college, an interest in Greek literature and Ulysses led illogically to a paper on “Troilus & Cressida,” one of Shakespeare’s most troubled plays that is a love story full of betrayal, sort of a grown-up, darker version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
In recent years, movies have made the Bard more accessible by changing the settings to modern times, and plots and betrayals that made no sense to me as a young person have become all too familiar when set against the backdrop of current politics.
(What the Bard would do with a character like Anthony Weiner: comic fool or political satire? Minor character or central protagonist?)
So it is with great interest that I saw the College of Charleston Theatre Department is presenting both “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” on concurrent weeks. Both change the setting to Charleston in the early 1900s, and both have women acting as men. Shakespeare would be so proud.
The plot of “Hamlet” is classic revenge, and so convoluted that the play within a play, the plots, supernatural visitations, and the fact that everyone in the play winds up dead would put the writers of “The Sopranos” to shame.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the Prince of Denmark comes home to find his father murdered and his mother marrying his uncle.
There is a pair of minor characters in the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — who seem relatively ignorant about what might be “rotten in the state of Denmark,” and provide at times bumbling comic relief to all the plots and subplots.
They are just clueless, and are played by the sharp-witted Hamlet to their demise.
The second play being staged is by the contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard, who weaves the fate of these two characters into his own play within a play in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
This play uses scenes from “Hamlet” as asides while these two characters follow another twisted path that seems to question whether we need art to live, and whether you can trust the ending to any play.
While both of these plays are fascinating, to see them close together would be revealing of both. And both productions feature a further twist: Both have women starring in traditionally male roles.
Theater faculty member Joy Vandervort-Cobb plays Polonius in “Hamlet,” and her role has been changed from a man to a woman, which softens the part since it is now coming from the perspective of a mother rather than a father.
In “Rosencrantz,” Brenna McNamara is cast as Guildenstern, a role clearly intended to be played by a male actor. According to Todd McNerney, chairman of the theater department, the shift makes the play more like a Burns & Allen comedy duo rather than Abbott and Costello.
Together, both plays seem like a great way to juxtapose some evil and cunning with silly humor, especially with a British accent, perfect fare before the Labor Day weekend.
“Hamlet” runs from Aug. 22-27 at the Chapel Theatre, 172 Calhoun St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. except for the 3 p.m. Sunday show.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” runs today and Aug. 29-Sept. 3 at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. except for the 3 p.m. Sunday shows.
Tickets are $15 general admission for each show and $10 for senior citizens and College of Charleston students, faculty and staff. Season subscriptions are available. Purchase tickets by calling 953-6306.
Reach Stephanie Harvin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5557.
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