Friday, March 8, 2013

Hamlet (Bedlam) (New York)

The first thing I want to say about Bedlam’s production of Hamlet was that it was not my favorite production ever… Mostly because that spot goes to Bedlam’s St Joan that I saw last year.  I will say, however, that of all the Hamlet’s I’ve seen (and I’ve see a number more than one hand but less than all my digits) this one was my favorite.  It succeeds in ways that many contemporary productions fail because of the very nature of who Bedlam is.

Let me explain, Bedlam theatre is 4 (yes, that’s right, I said 4) actors: Andrus Nichols, Tom O’Keefe, Ted Lewis, and Eric Tucker.   These four actors (and an occasional cameo from either an audience member or their SM) make up ALL the parts in Hamlet.  (St Joan is the same way).  Additionally, Bedlam loves to blur the lines of what theatre is and what audience is.  They are not satisfied with the idea of a proscenium theatre (or any “classic” theatre really).  What they are interested in is how to make the audience part of the show, how to keep the audience engaged with the work through 3 hours of play time. 

I want to pause here for a sec, those who read my blog often here me whine about long shows.  Bedlam is one of the few theatre’s I’ve been to that the length of the show hasn’t bothered me.  Mostly because, as an ensemble, they have a really great sense of internal timing and pacing, and actively work to keep that up – by keeping up the internal pacing, the 3 hour show doesn’t feel like 3 hours.  In fact, after both shows I was surprised at how long it had been.  (Also, there are 2 intermissions, which REALLY helps this small bladder girl –another reason I hate long shows)

But, back the Hamlet.  What I love the most about these 4 actors is their sense of play.  I mean, it is called a play for a reason, right?   Bedlam demonstrates this in many ways, the two most striking to me are the way they play with what it means to be an audience, and the dirt. 

Audience:  I love what Bedlam does with the audience.  Every time you walk into the theatre, you are told where you can sit, and every time you leave, you and all your things, are sent to the lobby to come back into a completely different playing space.  Sometimes you sit in the audience proper, sometimes on the stage…  Regardless of where you sit, the cast is continually interacting with you in very real ways.  None of the cast is afraid to catch your eye and talk to you, personally, as if you were part of the scene.  As if, in the case of Ophelia, you could somehow help bring her mind back.  Or somehow help Hamlet decide his life path, or if the ghost was telling the truth, or…  Bedlam works hard at using theatre’s true strength: the fact that the audience is in the same room as the players.  It isn’t shot and then seen, it is live, very alive.  And the audience is as much a part of that as the actors are.

Dirt:  the interesting thing to me about this version of Hamlet is that I didn’t actually like all of the choices that were made.  But, I didn’t have to.  Because the other thing Bedlam does so well is to maintain a true sense of belief in theatricality within their cast the whole playing time.  The actors of Bedlam are the kind and caliber I want to work with.  They work hard, but also know it’s their job and don’t hold the work precious.  What I mean by that is, for instance, when I walked into the lobby before the show, Andrus and Tom were sitting in the lobby, chilling, talking with everyone as they walked in.  The part of acting that, as a director, I feel is most often forgotten by actors is that it is a thing you do, you are “Hamlet” for three hours, yes, but you are also Sam (or Bob, or Sarah or whatever).  Some actors like to make the work so precious that they forget that they are actually this real other person.  Instead of this attitude, Bedlam embraces who they are, and then puts 120% of who they are on stage.  There is not a moment that they are on stage that they do not believe everything that is happening to them in that moment.  The theatricality of this means the audience is along for the true emotional journey, regardless of what that is.  Because the cast truly believes what they are doing is real, the audience does too.  As a practioner that sounds like such an easy thing, the true belief, but it’s not, not really. I would be willing to bet we have all been in, or seen, something in which someone doesn’t believe what is happening in the moment, and then the carefully woven spell is broken for the audience and everyone is just sitting in the house again.

(But Reesa, you are saying, you still haven’t actually talked about dirt.  You’re right, I haven’t.  But if you have seen the play, then you know exactly why that paragraph was titled dirt.  And if you have not, then you should go see it now.  )

What I learn when I watch Bedlam perform is how important belief, theatricality, and play are to good performances.  Remember when I said I didn’t like all the choices?  The three things listed above are done so well that it doesn’t matter.  I realized while watching this show that some of the choices I didn’t like have more to do with myself and the way I would direct the show than any bearing on the actual text.  And just like that, I was able to let those go for three hours and just enjoy what they had done.  Bedlam succeeds in learning the theatrical rules in order to break them successfully.  Much like Andy Warhol or Peter Brook, they stretch the boundaries of what they know and continue to grow as a company.  That’s the kind of work I want to do – high caliber work that continues to explore what theatre is and what it can be. 

**side note that doesn’t really fit in with the blog.  Tina Packer once said to me that Shakespeare’s tragedy are shows that lose the female’s voice while his comedy’s embrace it.  This version of Hamlet made that quite clear to me, that the female voice is not being heard at all, I mean.  And I love that it is running in rep with St Joan for that (among many other) reasons.


  1. Bedlam's Sain Joan is now running in rotating rep w/ Hamlet at the Access theater through April 7th. The same four actors do both shows.

    1. Brillant! Thanks! I can't believe I never say that anywhere. NYC till April 7, then I think DC. Here's the link even!