A CurtainUp Review
Theatregoers who caught Bedlam's Saint Joan last season need no introduction to this company's unique theatrical technique and style that is gaining them a reputation for its gutsiness innovative presentation of classic works. If these four actors could garner praise from tough New York critics for their revival of Shaw's epic play, it begs the question: Could this troupe pull off another coup by staging the Bard's famous tragedy in a similar vein? You bet they can!
The opening act has the audience seated on folding chairs in the traditional performing space with the actors materializing, one by one, from behind and running through theater aisles, or apparently coming out of nowhere to deliver their familiar speeches. This establishes "the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience.
You might wonder, as I did, how four actors could inhabit the huge dramatis personae of Hamlet (Well, this resourceful cast makes the seemingly impossible possible. Twenty-seven characters are trotted out.
Tucker performs the Prince and, in the opening Ghost scene, the sentinel Francisco. Ted Lewis takes on seven characters in a swoop. And Andrus Nichols and Tom O'Keefe both tackle nine. Yes, it's a tall order for each actor. But deliver they do, scene after scene, hour after hour.
If you think Tucker pared down a lot of the text to save wear and tear on the company's collective vocal cords, you are wrong. This Hamlet clocks in at a crushingly-long three hours and forty-five minutes which includes two intermissions. You get all of Hamlet's monologues and even those rather obscure scenes that are often cut in more stream-lined productions. This, dear reader, is not to scare you away but to inform you that this Shakespeare production is no trifle but a meaty tour de force by a quartet of feisty American actors.
Whether it's Tucker breathing new life into Hamlet (and ever-so-briefly into the soldier Francisco) or the other actors morphing into their multiple roles with split-second timing, the results are breath-taking. The lion's share of credit, of course, belongs to the double tasking Tucker but that's not to say that the rest of the ensemble are acting as if they are merely in Hamlet's orbit. Each individual actor holds his (and her) own on stage, slipping in and out of their diverse roles with much sleight of hand and informed imagination.
Lewis's Laertes seamlessly becomes Polonius by donning a pair of eye glasses. Nichol's Ophelia ripesn into Gertrude by simply changing her vocal tone and physical posture. O'Keefe deftly shifts between the ambitious Claudius and the gadfly Osric during the closing sword duel. The dramatic reach and versatility of the actors is incredible. What's more, you are likely to find yourself in the thick of the action, and perhaps seated next to one of the performers. You don't just watch the play but you fully experience it in all its human-ness.
There were a few mis-steps during my performance. The famous"The time is out of joint . . ." misfired, eliciting a collective laugh from the audience. However, this is nit-picking, as most of the textual interpretations are on the mark. Besides, in a popular play like Hamlet that is chockfull of clichés, it's practically a given that you are going to get, if not a few laughs and smiles at serious moments, some audience member quietly reciting a line or speech in synch with the actor on stage.
Just when most Hamlets lose their moxie, this production gains more texture and oomph. In fact, the Grave-digging Scene of Act 5 may well be my most memorable one. In it a Clown (convincingly played by O'Keefe) heaves out a garbage bag of real dirt that really smells like dirt and spreads it generously across the performing space. As the Second Clown (the plucky Nichols) enters and joins into the action, you look and listen as both grave-diggers go about their grisly business, toying with Yorick's skull one moment, swapping jokes about human corpses the next. To borrow a phrase from another Shakespeare tragedy, this scene thoroughly "smells of mortality." And it becomes a pungent foreshadowing of the tragic deaths of Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet, which are but a quick and dirty leap away.
This Hamlet could be renamed Everyman's Hamlet. The actors who exert themselves here are altogether focused on the old myth, and make it sparkle in spite of its age. And, truth be told, they outdo those more pretentious companies who trip themselves up by staging Shakespeare with too much fuss and forget the play is the thing.
A special alert: If you missed Saint Joan, it reopens for a limited run from March 6 through April 7 to play in rotation with Hamlet).
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