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

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