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An Exploration of Aesthetic Legacy

Based on the Shakespeare reference in the title, it seems obvious that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead will be a self-reflexive piece of theatre. To that, we say: sort of. While it’s true that it’s written as the “offstage story” of Hamlet, much of the play concerns itself with the nature of performance more generally, simultaneously honoring and disrupting conventions of the form. 

In our nearly seventy-year history, we have staged many plays and welcomed countless audience members. With every production, we create something ephemeral and leave something ineffable behind; these stories persist in our hearts and become part of our collective narrative. That’s the magic of theatre.

“I feel I am in a spiritual place when I walk into an empty theatre,” shares Scenic Designer John Culbert. “Our approach to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern evokes ‘the spirit of the theatre’ as a guide to exploring identity. What is Court’s identity, and how does theatrical storytelling shape and reflect that identity?”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern celebrates Court’s aesthetic identity through its scenic design and staging. By incorporating subtle nods to our past artistic hallmarks, Culbert and Director Charles Newell pay homage to this place and this art form that have given so much to so many.

Here, Culbert reflects on some of Court’s aesthetic signatures that live on in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

A row of barefoot people.
The cast of The Adventures of Augie March (2019). Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A row of people dressed in white, with the exception of the man in the middle, wearing purple.
The cast of Oedipus Rex (2019). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Something that I think Court does extremely well, as an institution, is create a sense of connection with an audience. Court productions typically build an intensity of experience that then reaches a climax; as we see in these sample images, that effect is often aided by footlights and a breaking of the fourth wall. The impact, for the audience, is the realization that we’re in a shared space with the characters in the play, and the actors on stage. It creates multiple layers of connection between the audience, the actors themselves, and the characters, so the human connections are more real and hit closer to home.

A crouching man holds an object up to a small window.
Timothy Edward Kane in An Iliad (2011). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Lighting is one of the most powerful tools in theatre; it can immediately set a mood. In my experience, Court productions typically use lighting to enhance the emotional storytelling to great effect, which is a credit to all the talented Lighting Designers who have worked here. 

Two men, one seated, flank and look at a gesticulating woman.
A.C. Smith, Grace Byers (formerly Grace Gealey), and Erik Hellman in The Misanthrope (2013). Photo by Michael Brosilow.
An ensemble surrounds and looks at a man lying on a bench and a woman sitting next to him.
Bethany Thomas and the cast of Porgy and Bess (2011). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

As I’m sure you can tell, Court Theatre has an intimate house with a relatively large stage, so we have the opportunity to be creative with space. Court often uses vertical and overhead scenic elements to define a volume of space within the larger theatre, which creates a sense of scale, makes the space feel more expansive than it actually is, and also establishes the ‘sky’, or ‘the heavens.’ Thinking about the theatre as a spiritual place, the concept of ‘the heavens’ is crucial, so that verticality – the sense of something higher, or bigger, than ourselves – can be really moving and effective.

An ensemble surrounds a sunken area at center stage.
The cast of Caroline, or Change (2008). Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A man jumps center stage while a cheering crowd looks on.
The cast of Man in the Ring (2016). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Another one of Court’s aesthetic hallmarks that will be echoed in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is an open, large-scale, abstract world that highlights the people in the space. The arrangement of bodies is used to create and define the world in individual moments, and it also allows for a very changeable environment to best support the emotion of a piece. 

A man helps a woman walk over a row of chairs as another woman looks on.
Abby Pierce, Patrick Mulvey, and Aurora Real de Asua in The Adventures of Augie March (2019). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Similar to the creation of an abstract world, many Court productions orchestrate scale – a virtually empty stage, strong lighting gestures, and obstacles (such as walking on chairs, as you see in this image) – to empower the physicality of the actors. This allows them to build and express an emotional moment with authenticity. 

A woman sits on a table while a man, standing above the wall, and a woman look on.
Mary Beth Fisher and Chaon Cross in The Glass Menagerie (2006). Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A row of people sitting in chairs under an interlocking set of stiarcases.
The cast of Uncle Vanya (2007). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

A final Court signature is the use of abstracted architecture that allows us to capture the essence of a gesture. By removing a production from any literal structure or place, we enable the audience to bring their own experiences into play; they are empowered to determine what this world means to them in relation to the story being told. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs from March 29  April 21, 2024. Tickets are available online or by calling the Box Office at (773) 753-4472.

Posted on March 22, 2024 in Productions

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