‘You get a medal for bravery,” the usher says to me as I separate my two pair of tickets to a Saturday double header of a matinee of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and an evening performance of George Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan.” Admittedly, it is a daunting immersion into heavy-duty theater, but I am glad I did it. I am also going to presume that it is as formidable and fun for the cast of four playing all the characters in both plays.
That’s right: only four actors — I almost want to call them performance artists — performing these two iconic dramas. It is a rematch of an acclaimed off-Broadway engagement in 2013. Bedlam is the name of the company responsible for these adventurous productions, and they command our respect and admiration for the laudably un-heavy-handed and generally respectful way each play is being done here in rotating repertory at McCarter Theater.
“Hamlet” lasts exactly three hours. It features Edmund Lewis, Andrus Nichols, Tom O’Keefe, and company director Eric Tucker undertaking the various roles with, as expected, varying degrees of esprit de corps. Bedlam’s approach to “Hamlet” may not be a purist’s delight, but, considering the familiarity many of us have with the basic story, the company’s vision of the play and its interpretations of the prominent characters are at the very least refreshing — without running the risk of parody.
Except for some unsteadying moments when it appears that Tucker’s Hamlet swings involuntarily from insanity to inanity, (bi-polar?) the complicated and bearded Dane in casual contemporary attire (when not in T-shirt and barefooted) deports himself nobly and renders his famous soliloquies with exceptional clarity and carefully invested nonconformity.
Nichols handles the switcheroo from the duplicitous Queen Gertrude into the unwittingly duped Ophelia by freeing up her pony tail but more importantly by making us believe in the transformation.
There’s a decided chill in the air as O’Keefe’s unremorsefully wicked King Claudius stalks tenuously around his newly acquired domain after his heinous murder of Hamlet’s father. He also makes a fairly good case for a bespectacled Polonius, who is even more profoundly foolish than we are used to. He also surprisingly doesn’t play upon the humor inherent in his advice to Laertes.
Some of the best production moments include Polonius’ tendency to go blank mid speech and O’Keefe and Lewis as the chatty grave-diggers who mimic the speech of Brooklyn cabbies of yore. This may also be the only time you will get to see a Hamlet do the Charleston (don’t ask).
The playing area is rearranged for each act with floor and bleacher seating shifting to accommodate the action. Audience members are asked to go into the lobby for this activity. Upon returning, some are assigned not only lines but small duties. I accepted the invitation and took a seat on the stage for the final act. A gentleman directly in front of me was given the goblet laced with the poison to hold — and performed his task commendably.
The asides in “Hamlet” are given additional heft as the actors intentionally interact with the audience. It’s great fun to participate and doesn’t detract from the intensity of the drama being performed. The actors also use the steep aisles of the theater space effectively throughout the play.
The modernist affectations, including the use of flashlights on the battlement and the ghostly projections, are part of a splendidly unpretentious artistic design that includes John McDermott’s settings and Les Dickert’s eerie lighting.
The seating is again reconfigured for “St. Joan.” And as with “Hamlet,” the staging brings Shaw’s harrowing 1923 drama with 22 characters up close and personal. Tucker’s direction defines itself without the pretensions often ascribed to period dramas. There is, however, a conscientious alignment with contemporary styles in the costuming that works well enough. Seeing a Princeton baseball cap and a motorcycle helmet here and there on a soldier adds a bit of humor in an otherwise grim drama. To be honest, “St. Joan” is more ponderous and a lot less fun than “Hamlet,” but it is not without its worthiness.
While the six scenes in the play, including that brilliant out of time and space epilogue, there is not a moment in which the actors appear even slightly daunted by the playwright’s talky salvos. Though at this performance, the audience shows more patience for speechifying and admiration for Shaw’s incomparable — if also insufferable — wit.
As portrayed heroically and with little pretense of being a girl of 16, Nichols’ Joan is understandably characterized as more warrior-woman than saint (a stance that has also inspired some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, including Katherine Cornell, Uta Hagen, and Lynn Redgrave). The result is a unique performance where the character radiates with a devotion to her faith and dedication to her cause.
The dozen other roles are shared by the other three actors, each of whom contributes to making the heartbreaking core of the play also theatrically palatable. To be sure, we are asked to make allowances for the Bedlam point of view.
Neither is Shaw’s point of view distorted in any meaningful way as we watch and listen to the purpose and the plight of a young 15th-century French woman who responds as an undaunted activist to the instructive voices/messengers of God and saints Catherine and Margaret — this as she is prompted to lead French troops against the English directly in the face of a male-entrenched hierarchy.
It’s always a treat to watch talented performers take on multiple roles to show their versatility.
O’Keefe makes an impressive leap from a teasing Bluebeard to a testy Catholic bishop. But it is no less an awesome transformation than that of Lewis as the infantile dauphin who is destined to become the king but reluctant to assume any authority over the army, and who then becomes the soulless chaplain who campaigns for Joan’s death at the stake.
You won’t see much if anything that subscribes to the 15th century in the trappings. Again the audience becomes the on-lookers and participants in the infamous trial scene and its aftermath.
While I would like to suggest that seeing both plays, as performed by this excellent young company, makes for an exciting theatrical experience, “St. Joan” is less likely come around again as soon as “Hamlet.” So perhaps, for these times, “St. Joan” may offer that glimmer of hope and faith to those ready and willing to stand up against the ignorance and petulance of the powerful.
Hamlet and Saint Joan, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Presented in repertory, through Sunday, February 12. $25 to $96.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.