Bedlam, the four-person company that last spring turned Tribeca’s 60-seat Access Theater into the epicenter of some of the most exciting theater in town with its kinetic and vivacious productions of GBS’s Saint Joan and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has brought all of its energy and innovation back to the city after a sojourn to DC. The company has moved about a mile uptown and gained about one hundred and fifty seats, but all of the intimate magic and stripped-down immediacy from last year remains.
Running in repertory, Hamlet and Saint Joan vividly and powerfully come to life; Bedlam uses its confines, four actors and a small audience, with stunning virtuosity.
The company’s signature style is that of nimble role-jumping between its performers. Eric Tucker, Andrus Nichols, Tom O’Keefe, and Edmund Lewis embody all the characters in both Hamlet and Saint Joan. This is less harrowing for Shaw’s play than for Shakespeare’s, which demands a great deal of character shifting within scenes, but in every case these actors succeed by pouring all of their energy and skill into whichever character they are portraying at whatever moment.
Often characters are marked by a small bit of costume like glasses or a hat, or by a mannerism, or sometimes simply by an accent or other vocal cue, but never does one character bleed into another. Bedlam succeeds in this endeavor where other companies struggle because its performers show the utmost respect, dedication, and commitment to each role they play, regardless of how long or short they are in that role.
But in another very important aspect, Bedlam’s excellence has little to do with its character shifting techniques. The height of the company’s brilliance is its ability to raise these classic plays to new heights. These productions are much less demonstrations of the skill of expert performers than they are earnest, frank, and sincere celebrations of the plays. While many role-shifting productions tumble recklessly into the chasm of gimmick, Bedlam’s first duty seems always to Hamlet and Saint Joan, and so the actors’ performances serve faithfully the goal of breathing life into these plays. Neither irreverent nor awed by the might of Shaw and Shakespeare, Bedlam operates in rhythm with the very pulse of its plays, allowing itself to be guided by the lively cadences of Hamlet and Saint Joan.
To take on Hamlet is of course to enter a four-hundred-year-old minefield of competing interpretations, biases, and expectations, but Bedlam treads into this field without hesitation or intimidation. Eric Tucker (who also directs both plays) gives us a Hamlet who is frank, direct, and quotidian. This Prince of Denmark is a man of the everyday, disturbed by the world around him and struggling to reconcile its faults with his philosophy and theology, but not withdrawn into some existential cocoon. During any of Hamlet’s several famous soliloquies, Tucker looks to his audience, engaging the people in the theater as he speaks directly to them. The technique is indicative of the production’s favor for eschewing the pretenses of theatricality: Tucker is standing in a room with other people, so he might as well speak to them. The value here is in reminding us that Hamlet is of and among us, that this is a person whose struggles we should recognize as not so very distant from our own.
In the time since Bedlam’s first New York residency, Hamlet has gained some new dimensions of goofiness, especially in the second of its three acts. Certainly the playfulness is a welcome respite from Hamlet’s weight, but if there are any places where Bedlam slips into a celebration of its own artifice rather than the play’s tensions and craft, it is in the middle portion of Hamlet.
Tucker occasionally becomes overly gestural, and allows the prince’s maddest moments drift into parody, while the rapid character-shifting demanded by some of Shakespeare’s more crowded scenes can grow dizzying. Nonetheless, the soul of Hamlet in all of its wonderful graveness reveals itself throughout this production.
While Hamlet has its flaws, Saint Joan does not. When I reviewed Bedlam’s Saint Joan in March of last year, I praised it to the heavens, and now I am left wondering if there’s anything left to add to this big pile of praise. Shaw’s wonderful yet somewhat under-produced play wrestles boldly with themes of religion, politics, war, and nationhood, while focusing nonetheless on the plight of a young and determined Joan of Arc. Behind a stunning performance in its title role by Andrus Nichols, this Saint Joan teems with warmth, immediacy, and mesmerizing passion. Nichols plays only Joan, while the company’s three men shift between the many political, martial, and religious authorities who generate so much static in the vision Joan sees so clearly.
The juxtaposition is fitting: Joan never waivers in her commitment to the mission of chasing the English out of France as she believes God has called her to do, but her trouble come as the authorities around her weaken under growing political pressure.
Nichols’s Joan seems constantly struggling to prevent the light of God from bursting forth out of her body: she is impassioned but never in pretense, unflappably earnest without a trace of cynicism. The character could easily fall flat, but Nichols will not allow her to. The Joan who mystifies all who encounter her within the play manages to mystify in the theater as well. In the play’s penultimate scene, with Joan on trial before the Inquisition and the audience in seats onthe stage contributing to her bewildered confinement, Nichols is heart-breakingly awash in all of Joan’s raw passion and frustration while the three men fire questions at her from the dark behind the audience. It is a masterfully choreographed scene that underscores all that makes Bedlam wonderful as a company: innovation in service of deep and thorough exploration of character, tension, and play.