Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Hamlet (Bedlam at the Culture Project)

Eric Tucker directs & stars in Hamlet
(photo: Elizabeth Nichols)
Bedlam, the Off-Broadway company remounting Hamlet in rep with a riveting Saint Joan, has a talent for finding creative solutions to staging problems. Their biggest obstacle, self-imposed, is a four-person cast that should make large-scale shows like Hamlet or Joan impossible. But the troupe stages these works without compromising the plays’ visions and with a unique method that acts as a signature and an artistic manifesto. At each intermission (they have two in Hamlet), they and stagehands rearrange the stage and house, effectively altering the stage, style, and atmosphere to suit the next act.

This device, one of many, extends the stage space into new dimensions, and also keeps the physical relationship between actor and audience in constant flux. In a sense, it’s a modernist extension of Shakespearean dramaturgy, which defined the location though word and action rather than set and props. Bedlam’s bold, unconventional style establishes their potential for greatness in the Off-Broadway scene.

The bespoke design frees the company to try radical methods, even beyond the triple- and quadruple-casting of actors. But Bedlam’s work rarely feels tricksy or cerebral, partly because they eschew technological solutions, and partly because the company’s designer (John McDermott) covers the blank space in whitewash to create an empty, rough-hewn ambiance—Bedlam’s stage isn’t a lab, it’s a workshop. The sensibility generates remarkably effective theater. Their Hamlet, for instance, has a truly unsettling ghost. The prince himself stands before the audience; a stagehand shines a powerful flashlight at his face at the back of the house; in the surrounding darkness, the trio of other actors delivers the ghost’s lines and sentences in rotation and overlap. The disembodied sound and eerie halogen light prickles our flesh and makes us doubt the ghoul’s integrity.

Polonius (Edmund Lewis) gets mocked
by everyone onstage
(photo: Elizabeth Nichols)
As long as they abandon their reverence for the play, Bedlam’s Hamlet is thoroughly engaging. So it’s unsurprising that their show’s strongest facets are the comedic ones. Edmund Lewis plays Polonius as a sort of portly C-3PO, albeit one with a fried circuit that makes him freeze at times. Another performer, Tom O’Keefe, gets several scenes of hilarity, including a cheerfully obtuse gravedigger. As Marcellus, he sounds a bit like Scooby Doo Shaggy when he delivers the “Something is rotten…” line—it makes sense, since it’s in reaction to that terrifying ghost, and it also breaks some of the orthodox solemnity.

Ironically, the more the company relies on Shakespeare’s script than on their own vision, the more unfocused the show is. Generally, their playing style draws the characters in broad, simple strokes. But in the psychological scenes, especially the setpiece speeches of Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude, they execute the script in deferential fashion. As Hamlet, Eric Tucker has a dashing manner and an expressive face, and he’s plays the character’s ironic self-reflection well. But aside from the nunnery speech, he never comes up with a new perspective on a scene or soliloquy. Though the general tenor is there, he lacks specificity.

So when the show drags in the middle set of acts, it’s because Bedlam mostly backs off from the showmanship. The troupe’s female member, Andrus Nichols, plays both Gertrude and Ophelia; it would’ve been more interesting—and in keeping with Bedlam’s sense of theatrical liberty—to cast one of the men. The numeric limitation in cast means that Nichols plays several men anyway, of course, and in those cases, she often plays the role as genderless. But her Guildenstern is specifically female, because she’s the focus of Hamlet’s misogyny like Ophelia and Gertrude. Perhaps the minor theme would’ve been blunted if Nichols hadn’t played those latter roles, but while her Guildenstern offers new insight into the play, it’s less bold—less Bedlam!—than cross-casting men might have been.

But even in the middle third, Bedlam’s Hamlet is the equal of any Off-Broadway Shakespeare, and its first and final thirds place the production above most. The company’s nonconformist ethos proclaim them to be an electrifying addition to the New York scene and especially to the staid collection of classical companies. I’d love to see their Winter’s Tale or let them loose on a Restoration Comedy; but whatever they stage next, I hope they’ll be inspired to attack in rough and rousing style.


Bedlam at the Culture Project
director: Eric Tucker

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Romeo and Juliet (CSC)

CSC's Romeo and Juliet is stripped down,
sometimes not just aesthetically
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Shakespeare may work best when we recognize ourselves in his plays. In the Classic Stage production of Romeo and Juliet (not to be confused with the entertaining-yet-bland version on Broadway) director Tea Alagiç finds a modern American city in Shakespeare’s Italianate setting. Through brisk strokes—and helped especially by Clint Ramos’ character-at-a-glance costuming—Alagiç sketches the diversity of class, race, sexuality, and maturity (both age and attitude) that Shakespeare has invented. Yet paradoxically, each scene’s location is as generic as Verona is specific. Alagiç and Marsha Ginsberg set the stage in a minimalist style: an empty space, supplemented by a few pieces of Ikea’s modernist furniture and backed by a white cyclorama that lighting designer Jason Lyons colors subtly to accent the scenes.

The minimalist tactic is mostly successful, though it reaches a baffling extremity in the streetfight between Mercutio and Tybalt, in which guts get spilled though no weapons are visible. And it takes chutzpah to stage the Balcony Scene without any disparity in elevation whatsoever. A careful pruning of Shakespeare’s script brings momentum and urgency: Romeo cries “I am fortune’s fool!”, smash to blackout, catch your breath at intermission. Yet the production is more intellectually stimulating than it is emotionally involving. Typical is the Capulet masquerade, which puts Romeo in a giant Pooh head. This adds a hilarious visual element to a familiar. It also subverts the archetypal scene of love-at-first-sight and enlarges Juliet’s character. This Romeo still falls in love with Juliet’s face, but it’s his words that she falls for first. But though the scene’s formatted (famously) as a shared sonnet, there’s little of the lovers’ emotional and linguistic coupling.

This production adds an especially adorable note
to the meet-cute lovers Romeo and Juliet
(photo: Joan Marcus) 
Alagiç’s design concept forces the dramatic burden onto the company. In delivering the verse, they find a balance between poetic recitation and dialogue. Sometimes the metaphors pop into clarity—especially those involving sex—while other times the sense is obscured. The characterizations are solid but rarely exceptional; Daphne Ruben-Vega’s Nurse is typical, seeming to work outside her comfort zone but with increasing confidence. And the production’s only outright misfire is its Friar Lawrence, Daniel Davis, who plays in the plummy, pseudo-classical style of ye old Gielgud. On the other hand, T.R. Knight (late of Los Angeles and Grey’s Anatomy) totally inhabits his role as Mercutio. He plays the gallant as a coked-up hipster, and his delivery of the Mab speech has the itchy rant of one line too many.

But this production, finally, is about its Juliet. Romeo and Juliet may make the stage reputation of Elizabeth Olsen (who won acting awards for Martha Marcy May Marlene, and who’s set to become a Hollywood starlet since getting cast in the Avengers sequel). Olsen plays Juliet as a city girl in the Manhattan mold: smart, articulate, and worldwise, possessed of a keen sense of irony that’s undercut by her teenaged volatility. She lives every moment of the character, seeming to discover both the thought and emotion that the verse discloses. Julian Cihi, as her paramour, tosses his Byronic locks with passionate intensity; his Romeo’s a bit of a naïf, old-fashioned on its own but it offsets this Juliet nicely. But it’s Olsen’s performance is that scintillates. It’s one that New York-based Shakespeare lovers shouldn’t miss.