Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Hamlet
& Saint Joan

Bedlam
Review by Cameron Kelsall


(l-r) Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe, and Edmund Lewis
and Eric Tucker in Hamlet

Photo by Jenny Anderson
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. When Eric Tucker and Andrus Nichols founded their theater company, aptly named Bedlam, in 2012, they did so with the resources they had on hand: four actors, about $30,000, and a 50-seat black box, according to a recent New York Times interview. The company has grown in prominence after a spate of rave reviews, leading to more unique productions in New York and a series of prestigious engagements at regional theaters around the country. Yet despite its success, Bedlam has not abandoned the spare and bracing style on which it was founded; if anything, they've doubled down.

Bedlam is currently in residence at McCarter Theatre Company's Berlind Theater through February 12, presenting their productions of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan and Shakespeare's Hamlet in repertory. The former play served as the company's inaugural production; the latter has become one of the company's touchstones. Tucker and Nichols appear in both productions, along with Edmund Lewis and Tom O'Keefe. Tucker is also credited as director.

I saw both productions on successive evenings earlier this week, beginning with Hamlet. Bedlam's take on this most-produced Shakespeare marries an innovative conceptual staging with what could be described as a rather routinely American interpretation of the text. The humor is foregrounded, the more lurid details of the plot are amplified. Hamlet (played by Tucker, the only actor who does not essay multiple parts) is sullen and overtly suicidal one moment, garrulous and bawdy the next. Claudius (O'Keefe) becomes a guilt-ridden alcoholic, his flask ever-present; his relationship with Gertrude (Nichols, who also takes on Ophelia) is nakedly licentious. Lewis' Polonius is a windbag; his Horatio is an eager lemming. It's not that these choices don't work—it's just that they've been done before.

What does excite is how the company has creatively used every nook and cranny of the Berlind space to do something truly original. The first three rows of the theater have been removed, with a significant amount of onstage seating implemented. The stage floor is fused with the audience space; needless to say, there is no fourth wall. Performed in a three-act structure, the first act encompasses Act One, with the night watch scenes portrayed in utter darkness, illuminated only by handheld flashlight. On paper, this would seem gimmicky; in execution, it effectively communicates the existential dread the men feel when confronted with the dead king's ghost. Rarely has King Hamlet's speech imploring his son to vengeance been handled with such bone-chilling specificity.

The second half, representing Acts Two through Four, applies the play-within-play concept literally, with the onstage seats rearranged to make the entire audience hyperaware of the theatricality. Much of this section is portrayed on a raised platform, with the actors seated in front-facing chairs, using deliberate gestures to communicate shifts in character and place. The final section (Act Five) turns the famous duel into a boxing match of sorts, the onstage chairs once again shuffled; this time, in a three-quarter thrust reminiscent of a boxing ring. Tucker and his brilliant set and lighting designers (John McDermott and Les Dickert, respectively) fuel this effective reimagining of theatrical space in such a manner that it remains perpetually engaging, even when the interpretation seems to sag. Fight director Trampas Thompson stages one of the most thrilling duels I've ever witnessed. Like many people who attend ungodly amounts of theater, I've seen Hamlet more times than I can count, in a myriad of different styles, edits, and dramatic renderings. Bedlam's may not be the most perfect, but it will stand among the most memorable.


Tom O'Keefe and Eric Tucker in Saint Joan
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
If this Hamlet is entertaining but uneven, Saint Joan is—forgive me the pun—a revelation. Shaw's Maid of Orleans can stand against any of Shakespeare's creations in terms of complexity and difficulty, and Nichols faces the challenges of playing her head-on. It's a fearless and physical performance that captures every aspect of Joan's complicated character, from her youthful insouciance to the brave demeanor with which she goes to her death. Nichols is a tall and athletic woman with a somewhat husky voice, which allows us to visualize Joan as a leader on the battlefield, while subtly suggesting the discomfort many felt toward the possessed "heretic" who dared to say that God willed her to dress and act like a man.

Every aspect of this production—which is more outwardly traditional, while still retaining a feeling of experimentalism—works exceedingly well. Tucker, O'Keefe, and Lewis play their host of men with aplomb, from the snobbish and sniveling Englishmen to the ineffectual French aristocrats. Lewis is particularly delicious as the Dauphin, who appears after his coronation dressed in embroidered corduroys and a Vineyard Vines tie, looking like he's about to board the Hampton jitney. The somewhat problematic epilogue is staged so perfectly I could barely catch my breath—I won't give anything away, but prepare yourself to be bowled over by its thrilling immediacy. The production's three-plus hours absolutely flew by, and I felt the theater feeling drained—in the best possible way.

I saw Hamlet from the usual seats that McCarter provides to critics: center orchestra, about halfway back. I was provided roughly the same seats for Saint Joan the next night, but in order to fully engage with Bedlam's concept, I volunteered to take an empty onstage seat (what my partner cheekily refers to as "the splash zone"). The energy among those of us sitting among the actors was palpable; being able to smell the smells of the stage, and to feel the actors radiating as they delivered their lines, made for an unforgettable experience. One complaint I often hear from people is that theater can feel distant—more of an academic exercise than a vehicle for entertainment. I doubt anyone would say that after spending an evening among this saucy and skilled crew. I would recommend that anyone sit onstage if they can, but more than anything, I urge those in the area to just see these plays. Any seat will do. You may leave viewing the theater in a completely different light.

Bedlam's productions of Hamlet and Saint Joan continue in rotating repertory through Sunday, February 12, 2017, at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton NJ. Please visit www.mccarter.org to view a complete schedule and to purchase tickets.


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