HAMLET is a monumental undertaking. Spanning large swaths of location and time, containing close to two dozen characters, and carrying the baggage of hundreds of years of unparalleled theatrical and philosophical debate, the play demands a staging that is as meticulous as it is committed to the gravity of Shakespeare’s enigmatic revenge tragedy.
It might therefore seem like folly or even hubris to produce such a monument with four actors in a tiny performance space. Surely the very girth and power of HAMLET would force itself free of these bounds, exposing their arbitrary and imposed nature.
But the wonder of the Bedlam Theater Company is its masterful ability to defy such seemingly commonplace notions. As it demonstrated last year with SAINT JOAN (remounted and running in rep with HAMLET starting on March 6), Bedlam’s signature skill is capturing the soul of a classic, distilling it to its essence, and presenting it with vigor and immediacy. This HAMLET does away with the trappings of elaborate costumes, sets, and props, but its beauty arises from more than simply being black-box Shakespeare. This production succeeds by embracing and deploying its confines to probe the crannies of HAMLET, finding there deep humanity.
More an examination of the many conflicted characters that make up HAMLET than it is some reverent exaltation of a masterpiece, Bedlam’s HAMLET is a marvel of ingenuity that paradoxically finds vast space for exploration in the limits it imposes on its characters. Although Hamlet comes closest, not even he gets a performer all to himself. Rather, Bedlam’s four actors (and one assistant stage manager making a few appearances) move rapidly and nimbly between the play’s myriad roles. In just the first two scenes, Ted Lewis is Horatio, Polonius, and his son Laertes. Tom O’Keefe is the terrified Bernardo of Elsinore’s watch, and then rapidly becomes the bombastic king Claudio before his court.
As the company’s only woman, Andrus Nichols dutifully (and masterfully) takes on both Gertrude and Ophelia, but her performance is at once unbound and accentuated by gender. Throughout the evening she will play male parts like Marcellus, the First Player, and Guildenstern, but in a testament to Bedlam’s willing embrace of the empirical, rarely are we asked to simply ignore the fact that the person before us is a woman. When she becomes the messenger Voltemand, for example, she and O’Keefe use the moment to emphasize Claudius’s lewdness rather than pretending that Nichols becomes a man.
Both script and performers provide clear signposts as to which character we are seeing (Shakespeare is fond of direct address after all, and although both Polonius and Laertes are embodied by Lewis, for example, father has a deeper voice and wears glasses, while son does not; when Lewis is Horatio, he dons a signature cap) but the greatness of this production is how characters transcend their trademark props and mannerisms. Polonius and Laertes are each distinct and fully realized, neither getting shorted because they come from the same performer. The same is true throughout the cast of characters, as each of these actors dedicates him or herself fully to whatever character needs voice and embodiment at whatever moment. Great fun is had by O’Keefe’s switching between Claudius and Osric (with that infamous bonnet) in the play’s final scene, but neither character bleeds into or is diminished by the other.
Far from gimmicky, the production’s role-shifting technique emphasizes powerfully the essence of Shakespeare’s characters. We are not asked to dwell not on O’Keefe-as-Claudius, for example, but rather on the specific desires and tensions that define the character, and how distinct they are from somebody like Bernardo, Osric, or the first gravedigger.
Of course, as the Prince of Denmark is the exception to countless dramatic and philosophical precepts, so too is he the exception here, dominating the performance of Eric Tucker (who strays from the title role only briefly for a few lines as a messenger). Tucker’s Hamlet epitomizes the ethos of Bedlam: he is frank, unsentimental, undeceived by fictions of theatricality, and yet expertly performed.
As he sardonically converses with his mother and uncle in their opening scene, this Hamlet shows an irreverent nimbleness of language—his “I know not seems” speech is not a heartfelt expression of mourning, but a rhetorical flourish, coyly manipulating language in ways he is well aware are over the head of his mother. When Hamlet soliloquizes his wish for flesh to melt shortly thereafter, Tucker eschews customs of solitary soliloquy and addresses the audience directly, embracing the fact that there are other bodies in his space, and so he might as well talk to them. Later, Tucker will have as much fun with Hamlet’s “antic disposition” as the character has with those whom his disposition vexes most, but he does not allow the character to lose the thread of grounding. Rather than seeming either fully mad or fully manipulative, Tucker’s Hamlet dwells between those two extremes, embracing the conflicted gray area that reflects Hamlet’s mind.
Although the Access Theater’s lobby remains just a lobby and not a playing space for this production, Bedlam again challenges traditional staging techniques, as the audience at various points occupies folding chairs on the floor of the performance space, and the actors occasionally occupy the seating area or even the entrance to the tech booth. Bedlam also continues its conviction of embracing a classic’s entirety—this is a full and unrushed HAMLET, Reynoldo and all, and so the evening clocks in close to three and a half hours.
As it did with SAINT JOAN, Bedlam again looks to a classic with neither irreverence nor dewy-eyed worship, but with critical and unrestrained eyes. In tiny confines, with a bare minimum of accoutrement, and the tirelessness of four expert performers, HAMLET comes alive, as Bedlam shows itself through its unique ability to find the essence of a classic and its characters to be an importantly innovative voice in New York theater.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Eric Tucker
February 7 – April 7, 2013
380 Broadway (at White Street)
New York, NY