The bedlam that is currently reigning at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center is an acting company called Bedlam. They are performing two classic plays in rotating repertory: Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play and one of the great tragedies of world theatre; and Saint Joan, described as George Bernard Shaw’s only tragedy of his many works for the stage. It’s madness to see these plays performed by a cast of four, with minimal costuming, scenery, and props, in playing areas that appear all over the theatre. However, because this is the task successfully undertaken by Bedlam, it’s madness for a true aficionado of the actor’s art to miss either of these performances.
Bedlam has taken great care to preserve the texts of both works while simultaneously expanding the theatrical envelope in the way the plays are being presented. The company trusts their audiences’ intelligence and imagination to take up the challenge and follow Bedlam as they use the actors’ art of creation, fluidly moving from the back wall of the stage to the last row of seats in vividly conjuring the worlds of Denmark’s Elsinore Castle and the France of 1429.
Since there are but four actors in the company, the actors need to play multiple parts, sometimes at the same time. With the donning of a hat or a pair of glasses, or a shift in posture, the creation of wholly different personas in the space of a split-second occurs elegantly right before one’s eyes.
While Bedlam appears as a seamless ensemble in both plays, each individual actor deserves separate mention. Eric Tucker not only plays the title role in Hamlet and both the slippery Earl of Warwick and Dunois, commander of the forces at Orleans, in Saint Joan, he also skillfully directs both plays. Tom O’Keefe gives strong performances as Saint Joan’s Bishop of Beauvais and Hamlet’s King Claudius and the Gravedigger, among other roles. A forceful, luminous portrayal as Joan, Shaw’s proto-feminist and possibly nascent lesbian, is given by Andrus Nichols, who also portrays the every woman within Queen Gertrude and Ophelia. Finally, Edmund Lewis pulls off the triple play as Shakespeare’s Horatio, Laertes, and Polonius — all at the same time — and as Shaw’s insecure Charles the Dauphin and anger-driven English chaplain John de Stogumber
I do not have words evocative enough to describe the fantastic, fascinating experience that is watching Bedlam perform these great plays, so I will not even try. All I can do is encourage all theatregoers – from those who are familiar with these plays to those who will be seeing them for the first time – to attend both. If I had to choose my favorite of the two, it would be Saint Joan, but this is not meant to imply the performance of Hamlet was a lesser effort. All that’s left to say is: Go! Now! Experience the wonder for yourselves.
Hamlet and Saint Joan are presented by Bedlam at the Peter Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center on the campus of Princeton University through February 12th. For the performance schedule, tickets, and other information, visit www.mccarter.org.