However you judge Bedlam, this young and adventurous New York company deserves extra points for a program with an unusual degree of difficulty.
Imagine four actors taking on all the roles not just in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” but also in George Bernard Shaw’s dazzlingly argumentative 1923 drama, “Saint Joan.” That is the challenge Bedlam has set for itself in these touring productions now playing in repertory at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage under the direction of Eric Tucker.
The scenery and props are minimal, the dress is casual contemporary and theatrical exuberance is allowed to run roughshod over dramatic illusion. The focus rests squarely on the multitasking cast member.
The amiable actors — Aubie Merrylees, Aundria Brown, Kahlil Garcia and Sam Massaro — roam freely about the theater, mingling with spectators in the auditorium as well as on the stage, where for certain sections, a portion of the audience is seated. It’s hard to decide whether to be more awed by the performers’ indefatigable energy or their prodigious powers of recall.
These are long plays (each runs approximately three hours with two intermissions), composed in gusts of the most refined language ever set down by a dramatist writing in English. Breathtaking in both the literal and figurative sense, these works require the lung capacity of an Olympian marathoner with the elocutionary finesse of Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins.
But aside from the daredevil nature of the acting feat, how potent are these revivals? The answer, I’m afraid, is mixed. For those wanting to reencounter the brilliance of Shakespeare and Shaw, Bedlam’s frenetic approach is not the optimal way.
The cast at the Broad Stage isn’t the one who won sterling reviews a few seasons ago in New York. Tucker, Bedlam’s artistic director, was the company’s Hamlet, and one has to assume that any production of “Hamlet” would be built around its star. Or to put it another way, the success of “Hamlet” is contingent on the success of whoever is playing the melancholy Prince.
Merrylees has flickers of a good Hamlet in him, but the hurried pace of the production never lets us forget that these actors have signed up for a wild theatrical experiment. To judge by the audience attrition, I clearly wasn’t the only one who found the collegiate streak in the acting wearying.
Each of the four performers has memorable moments. Brown, the only female cast member, shines as Joan and acquits herself capably as Gertrude and Ophelia. But the minor characters are exaggeratedly sketched, with accents and curious speech patterns trotted out like Groucho glasses.
The solution to the logistical jam that arises when, in “Hamlet,” the same actor is playing Polonius and Laertes, can be amusing. Garcia, both bestowing and receiving paternal advice, differentiates between father and son with help from a pair of eyeglasses and an air of British pomposity. Brown’s transformations from Gertrude to Ophelia are more subtly negotiated through the actress’ vocal and physical bearing.
But figures like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched with cursory comedy, the identities of supernumeraries flash by in a blur and corpses are pressed into service in ways that make the tragedy seem like nothing more than a merry game of make-believe.
“Saint Joan,” which is the superior of the two productions, can be harder to follow in its more populous scenes, as the characters are not as well known. The various wrangling religious, political and military leaders, all trying to control a 15th century French maid who believes she’s being divinely led to expel the English invaders from France, are reduced to voices in an argument that might as well be disembodied.
At points, the collision of perspectives for which Shaw is renowned is moved off-stage. Actors shout lines from various hidden perches in the theater. The wrestling match between church and state over what do with a woman who claims to have a direct line to God becomes a quasi radio play, albeit one in which the voices aren’t readily recognizable.
But if the identities of the speakers get lost in the shuffle, the general outline of the story manages to come through. Shaw’s lively, unfailingly articulate mind is especially welcome at a time when public debate has regressed to Twitter twaddle. “Saint Joan,” still dangerous after all these years, asks us to think harder about our canons of belief.
Ballasting the production is Brown’s Joan, full of spiritual conviction yet afflicted near the end with poignant doubt. Her radiant performance dispels the view that Shaw’s characters are merely mouthpieces for his intellectual puppetry. Their heroism lies in the honest anguish of their deliberations.
If Merrylees’ Hamlet were as fully realized as Brown’s Joan, Bedlam’s Shakespeare would have similarly managed to transcend its clumsy patches. The scenic handling of “Hamlet” is more striking. John McDermott’s sets and Les Dickert’s lighting, while maintaining the minimalist aesthetic that keeps a cool distance from literalism, are colorful and sprightly.
But Tucker’s staging of the middle section of his “Hamlet” doesn’t give the cast a fighting chance. The actors, arrayed in a line of chairs like garrulous Beckett semi-invalids, bounce from character to character in ways that make it impossible to keep track of the speaker’s identity. “Words, words, words,” — Hamlet’s crack to Polonius about what he’s reading — sums up the effect.
Garcia’s racing delivery converts swaths of Shakespeare to gibberish. Massaro, a vibrant Claudius, overdoes the modern mannerisms in some of his other roles. And everyone is guilty of the novice’s mistake of shrieking for emotional emphasis.
The productions, though studiously faithful to the plays, make room for the occasional elbow-nudging anachronism. These moments invite us to enter the spirit of theatrical Bedlam, if you will. But there’s something distractingly random about these liberties.
It’s heartening to see young actors test themselves in such a Herculean fashion. But if rising to this theatrical challenge is exhausting for the performers, it’s also fatiguing for the good sports in the audience who managed to stick it out to the end of both plays.
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Bedlam’s ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Saint Joan’
Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: “Hamlet” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday; “Saint Joan” at 7:30 p.m Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Information: (310) 434-3200 and www.thebroadstage.org
Running time: About 3 hours for each play
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