HAMLET (Bedlam Theater Company): “Shakespeare’s most underrated comedy” is at McCarter in Princeton

(l-r) Edmund Lewis, Eric Tucker, and Andrus Nichols in HAMLET. Photo by Elizabeth Nichols.
(l-r) Edmund Lewis, Eric Tucker, and Andrus Nichols in HAMLET. Photo by Elizabeth Nichols.

After 400 years HAMLET still fascinates directors and eludes their efforts to get at the heart of its meaning. Shakespeare fans have seen Hamlets played every which way – classic, women, slackers, ultra comic, old, too old, morose, frenetic, even double Hamlets. Twelve years ago on this stage director Daniel Fish infamously had Hamlet shoot Horatio. You never know what might happen in any given production.

Bedlam, a dynamic four-actor company from New York offers HAMLET in rotating repertory with their even more celebrated ST. JOAN, which I haven’t yet seen. Bedlam is one of many companies working over the years to counter the petrifaction of Shakespeare in performance. But Bedlam’s imagination and the energy of their acting make their production stand out.   As the play opens, the actors, distributed around the theater, make their way into the Battlement Scene. It was a surprise to find that the guy who had been slouching in the seat directly across the aisle from me was Hamlet, awaiting his entrance.

Eric Tucker, the director, plays Hamlet. More witty than ironic, his Dane shows restrained energy rather than melancholy. As his clean approach sweeps away age-old dust gathered on the text, he liberates tired readings by simply honoring the meaning of the words. In the conversation after the show Tucker said that it’s about the actor using his own voice to act, not about putting on more importance in order to “sound Shakespearean.” Amen.

Edmund Lewis plays the mild, later to become hotheaded, Laertes, and also his father, Polonius. These, along with his other characters interact with Tom O’Keefe’s (Claudius and others) and Andrus Nichols’s (Gertrude, Ophelia and others). The actors exchange roles, playing from various points of view. At one point Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Gertrude, Claudius and maybe others pile up on Polonius’s lap, wildly switching roles around. Tom O’Keefe, in greeting the audience at the start, called this Shakespeare’s most underrated comedy, and with all their shenanigans, you can see his point.

The text is compressed and the pace modulates between real-time drama and something more like fast forward. Even pared down to 3 hours it has something in common with The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which by design favors momentum over depth. Bedlam, however, does address both.

This complex play defies easy surface interpretation. To keep on top of everything with the continual taking on and shedding of identities –often within the space of a single sentence– an observer would have to be pretty familiar with the twists and turns of the story. If someone has never seen HAMLET (or never actually read it when it was assigned in school) the manic character-shifting and rapid scene switching could at times render the lively performance almost incomprehensible. I feel for newbies in moments of potential confusion. They’ll still enjoy HAMLET though, even if they don’t fully appreciate its power. Fans who know the play will be eager to see how Bedlam handles their favorite scenes.

I have only one major criticism of the company’s choices: It is a challenge to sustain the heart under all the antics, for the humorous is never far away from the tragic. They handle this tension very well – until the end, with the fatal swordfight, when the balance comes apart. The shtick, at a pivotal point, involves ridiculously funny clowning using the hat that delineates the characters of deadly serious Claudius and a comic Osric, both played by O’Keefe. The funniest stage business of the show upstages tragedy with comedy, sacrificing much of the depth that’s been carefully built up under the high jinks. So the sweet prince thing falls a bit flat.

Bedlam is “committed to the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience,” and audience members are invited to sit in the performance space. This arguably works even more for the company than for the volunteers, who provide the context and medium in which the actors are kept grounded (by the groundlings?).

The company brings air and bounce with their simultaneously tight and freewheeling approach to HAMLET. Shakespeare’s wordplay shines as old lines get Bedlamized. In the discussion afterward, Andrus Nichols talked about how the company’s longer rehearsal period allowed time for working on clarity and specificity of thought, so that for the actors, “There’s not anything between you and the play.”

[McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Pl., Princeton, NJ] January 13-February 12, 2017; mccarter.org

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