In the program for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” — currently playing in rotating repertory at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton — McCarter artistic director Emily Mann encourages audience members to “consider these two powerful plays in conversation with each other.”
That’s a subject that could keep a Princeton grad student busy for a semester, so I’ll make one point here that seems most relevant for anyone considering seeing one or both of these productions — which have been brought to Princeton by the New York-based Bedlam theater company, with Bedlam co-founder Eric Tucker serving as the director.
“Hamlet,” written around 1600, and “Saint Joan,” which premiered in 1923, both have, as their main characters, someone who questions the status quo. Hamlet and Joan may seem wise or crazy, at different times, but they always seem to see the world through a filter that’s different from other people’s filters. And Bedlam seems similarly interesting in going in the other direction from what is expected— i.e., not mounting these classic the way they have traditionally been mounted, but stripping them down to their core and starting fresh.
It’s a rewarding experience to see these plays on consecutive nights, as I did. I can’t imagine, though, seeing both three-hour, two-intermission productions on the same day, as is possible on some weekend dates on which matinees and evening performances will both be offered (the remaining two-show dates are Jan. 28-29 and Feb. 4 and 11-12).
Each play is performed by a four-person cast. Tucker and Andrus Nichols play the title characters; the other three actors in each play (Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe round out the cast) play multiple characters, sometimes changing parts at a dizzying rate. They wear ordinary, modern clothes, and use modern props — a flashlight, a boombox and so on. There’s some comedy built into the role-changing; three of the actors play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “Hamlet,” for instance, and they signal which two actors are these two (and who is someone else) by contorting their bodies and talking in a similar, odd manner.
Occasionally, the actors will involve an audience member or two in the action. Speaking of which … some audience members sit in chairs that are on the stage itself, and those chairs are reassembled into different configurations between acts, giving each act a sense of a new beginning. In one of the nicest touches, during the trial scene in “Saint Joan” audience members sit in rows of chairs onstage, as if they, too — and all those watching, by extension — are being asked to pass judgement.
“Saint Joan” was the first play Bedlam presented when it launched in 2012, and “Hamlet” was the second; by now, these intricately staged productions purr like well-oiled machines, and yet, the four actors are able to summon plenty of raw emotion in the scenes that call for it. These are brisk, invigorating takes on the classics, and it was a smart move for the McCarter to bring them to New Jersey.
Remaining dates are Jan. 28-29 and Feb. 2, 4-5, 7-8 and 10-12 for “Bedlam: Hamlet” and Jan. 28-29 and Feb. 1, 3-4, 9 and 11-12 for “Bedlam: Saint Joan”; visit mccarter.org.