January 18, 2017

Bedlam Presents Unconventional, Audience-Friendly Hamlet, With Four Actors for More Than 30 Roles at McCarter Berlind

BURIAL BATTLE: Laertes (Edmund Lewis, on bottom) and Hamlet (Eric Tucker) fight over the corpse of Ophelia (Andrus Nichols) in the graveyard, as Hamlet prepares for his final revenge in Bedlam theater company’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 12. (Photo by Elizabeth Nichols)

A New York-based theater company founded in 2012, Bedlam, currently presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Shaw’s Saint Joan in rotating repertory at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, has received much acclaim from New York critics and others for its productions over the past four years. McCarter artistic director Emily Mann saw their Saint Joan a few years ago in New York City, and “was determined to bring Bedlam’s work to Princeton.”

You may think you know Hamlet, but a visit to Bedlam’s Hamlet at the Berlind over the next four weeks will provide you with refreshing new perspectives on this most famous and familiar of classics, and it will also shed light on what the Bedlam buzz is all about.

Bedlam’s priorities in staging Hamlet are simple: to tell the story and to make it as accessible as possible, so that a contemporary audience can experience that story fully, as if for the first time. This Hamlet, directed by and starring Bedlam artistic director Eric Tucker, and using only four actors to play an array of more than 30 characters, is highly energetic, engaging and fun to watch.

It is stripped down, in terms of cast, costuming, staging, sets, and effects, and that paring often serves to clarify the challenging language and plotting of the play. The performers’ fidelity to the text and the importance of conveying that text to the audience is striking, though the running time of almost three and a half hours caused a few audience members to depart during the intermissions. Additional cuts in the script would have been helpful.

Watching the ingenuity and skill of the consummate actors, three out of four of whom switch rapidly from role to role all evening (Mr. Tucker plays Hamlet throughout), is delightful, at times astonishing. Only once or twice do the complications of numerous characters and intricate plotting seem to get the better of them and cause some confusion for the audience.

The play is about intense political intrigue, about fathers and sons, families, about sanity and insanity, revenge, mortality, love and lust. But, most appropriately here with a cast of four taking on some 30 roles, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about playing a part, acting a role. Almost everyone in the “rotten” court of Denmark is playing a character, pretending to be something he or she is not. The metatheatrics of course multiply when the touring players come to Elsinore, and Hamlet decides to collaborate with them to stage a scene, a play-within-the-play that will “catch the conscience of the king.”

The Bedlam production guarantees that its audience will be collaborating with the performers in staging this production of Hamlet. “Committed to the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience,” their mission statement reads, “Bedlam creates works of theatre that reinvigorate traditional forms in a flexible, raw space, collapsing aesthetic distance and bringing its viewers into direct contact with the dangers and the delicacies of life. In this new, fresh, active environment storytelling becomes paramount and the result is a kinetic experience of shared empathy.”

As the audience walks into the Berlind Theatre, their expectations are immediately upended. The front rows of seats have been removed, about 70 chairs provide onstage seating for the audience, on the floor and on two risers. With beams and pillars exposed on the back wall of the theater, there is no apparent set, except for what appears on stage right to be some sort of staircase covered by a large, ghostly white sheet.

“For us, it’s about making the audience know they’re part of the play,” Mr. Tucker states. “Their own placement feeds the energy of the story. As the audience gets moved around, they’re sharing the space with us. There’s no ‘this is your area, this is our area.’ This is at the heart of what we do.”

The air of informality is further enhanced by the actors, dressed in contemporary attire, wandering around and chatting with each other and with the audience. The arrangement of the onstage chairs and the two risers is completely reconfigured during each of the two intermissions. Throughout the evening the actors do not hesitate to “break the fourth wall,” to sit with the audience and communicate directly with them. The effect evokes a spirit of familiarity, of intimacy with the players and enhanced understanding of them and their story. The lack of formality and aesthetic distance enhances the accessibility and clarity of the production.

The great theatrical challenge of suspending the audience’s disbelief is not so challenging here, because the Bedlam four have from the start allied themselves with the audience to join forces in telling the story and making sense of these characters and their problems. The audience quickly understands and accepts that whoever’s wearing the glasses — male or female, tennis shoes or not — is Polonius; and that another actor can play both Claudius and Rosencrantz and single-handedly carry on a conversation between those two characters; and that, when a pile of dirt is dumped on stage in a black plastic bag, we’re in the graveyard. The imaginative possibilities are endless, also fascinating and fun to watch.

Mr. Tucker’s Hamlet, in league with his audience from his first appearance sitting in an upper row of the theater, is a warmly sympathetic character. His characterization presents the Danish prince as more active and engaging than philosophical, in accord with this production that is more about the story than the psychology of Hamlet. Mr. Tucker is convincing in his soliloquies and in his transitions from disaffection to frustration to rage, despair and, ultimately, acceptance and resolve on his final-act return to Denmark.

Andrus Nichols, the only woman in the ensemble of four, is lucid and luminous in her portrayal of both Gertrude and Ophelia, sometimes in the same scene. She also ingeniously takes on a cluster of male roles. Edmund Lewis as Polonius, Horatio, Laertes and so many others, is astonishing in his adaptability, often with no more than a pair of eye glasses or a hat to make instantaneous character changes.

As Claudius the King, Tom O’Keefe presents a formidably smooth antagonist, working the room like a game show host or politician at a town hall meeting. He too, smoothly, seamlessly, persuasively takes on a cluster of additional personae, including Rosencrantz, Reynaldo, and others.

The four-member ensemble handles the significant demands of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose with eloquent clarity, ensuring that the audience understands even the most complex lines. The four work together skillfully, and Mr. Tucker’s direction, simple and straightforward, is also endlessly inventive, often surprising and entertaining.

John McDermott’s stripped down set design, with lighting by Les Dicker, serves effectively the spirit of the production and the Bedlam mission of bringing the audience into the world of the actors and the story of Hamlet.

“Bedlam”? The company does embody a spirit of rebelliousness, a determination to give its audience a different, new perspective on a beloved classic play. There is a wild energy here as the four actors portray so many different characters. And of course Ophelia’s madness and the feigned or real madness of Hamlet are central to the plot and theme of the drama. But ultimately, this disciplined, accessible, refreshingly sane production of Hamlet, going a long way towards making sense of an insane world, delivers its audience a generous dose of sanity and clarity, the antithesis of bedlam.

Bedlam’s production of “Hamlet” in rotating repertory with “Saint Joan” will be playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through February 12. For tickets and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.