BEDLAM's production of Hamlet is not a good candidate for one's first ever exposure to the play. It is experimental, visceral, and on occasion confusing and even somewhat gaudy. There is much to sift through and process during the nearly three hour long experience, and that processing will no doubt remove enough attention from newcomers to make the play inaccessible.
If, however, you are in fact familiar with Shakespeare's masterwork, this unique take will almost certainly, despite some of its faults, excite and inspire you.
A friend and I saw the production yesterday at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland. More specifically, we saw it in an experimental thrust space on the campus called the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. This facility holds about 150, I would guess, and when were were there it was clean, but only partially painted. Whether this is how the venue always looks, or if it has been painted as such for Hamlet, I don't know. I do know that this presentation needs to take place in small, intimate surroundings with little frills, so the venue matched it well. The potency of this type of performance would certainly be lost in a conventional, more distant proscenium venue.
Why? It is Hamlet with just four actors. (Though, to be fair, at times the show cheats a bit on this concept, with various stage hands shouting certain lines off stage as needed. At least during this performance.) The four BEDLAM actors are Ted Lewis, Tom O'Keefe, Andrus Nichols and Eric Tucker. Tucker played the title role, and is also the director. As for the other three, as you can imagine for a show like this, each of them played several other characters. And some characters were not always played by the same people. Characters would hope from one actor to the other as needed, (and sometimes when NOT needed, but simply for comical or dramatic effect.) At certain points, these transitions happen multiple times within a single scene, with nothing more to indicate it than the quick donning of a hat or an obvious change in gait or accent. It is somewhat dizzying when both of an actor's characters in a scene talk to one another.
I told you it was not the play to see if you don't know Hamlet.
Not that this is by any means a weakness of the production. The mere blocking of the transitions alone without the spoken lines would be a performance to watch in and of itself. Especially in the final scene, when actors jump, run, toss hats and other props to one another on they cross, give one character's speech only to die, spin around and become their other character reacting to same. It looked like a cross between ballet and the NFL. A virtual master-clinic in choreography. (It actually reminds me a bit of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged in that regard.)
Optimal use of whatever venue BEDLAM finds itself in is an integral part of this experiment as well. The human elements of the story, still vividly alive in Shakespeare's words take on an even more visceral quality as the four actors run in and out of the actual exits of the entire building, roll up a garage door to reveal not just Fortinbras, but the theater's actual parking lot, and deliver lines from the audience or the lighting booth among other places. The result is an impression that this is indeed a traveling company that just happened to find the building, and is putting on the play for the first time within the confines. This would be a different show depending on where one would see it, and that isn't always the case with plays.
Yet it is not an "in your face" production. Unlike the last time I saw a Hamlet I wasn't put off by the intimacy because it wasn't shoved down my throat. I felt invited, not forced, to become absorbed into the action. (Though just in case, I opted not to sit on the stage in the final scenes, when a new row of chairs was brought in by the actors. My companion opted to take the new seat, however. Other than Hamlet sitting next to her for the graveyard scene, nothing particular happened "to" her.)
All of the expert blocking in the world, however, would be fruitless without the language, which is why people consume Shakespeare. Though at times I found some of the speeches delivered too fast to be understood, (especially near the end), I consider BEDLAM's presentation of the text vivid and realistic. Clearly the actors knew what they were saying, and yet felt no compulsion to openly worship the verse. (A tendency I find that derails many modern productions of the Bard's work.) The words are mostly alive when they come from each of these actors. When that happens, you can perform Shakespeare at a landfill, and it will work. (For all I know, this has been done.)
At times, the gimmick overshadows the performances, though. An empty frame hangs from the ceiling from the beginning of the show. I was 99% sure at some point the reference to "counterfeit presentments" would connect to this prop, and indeed it does. But before that, Polonius is standing behind it, and when killed, the Christmas lights around the frame begin blinking, and continue to do so as the "dead" Polonius lies there. Instead of full exits, at times actors would merely sit on the laps of other actors, to conceal them from the audience until it was time for them to return. A few extraneous modern conventions, such as Hamlet observing, "awkward!", and shouting at Polonius, "Sing it with me!" These moments, as well as an at times unabashed if indirect acknowledgment that they are in fact a bunch of actors performing a show, ("In 45 minutes we will all be dead," says on actor just as the second intermission ends) took me out of the moment a few times.
There were also a few scene that required quite a bit of set assembly, as it were. As stage hands walked freely in and out of the action setting up chairs or curtains, I lost much of what was being said.
Then there are the transitions I mentioned. Usually they worked, especially when one character had a specific hat or prop they always carried. (Polonius always wore glasses, for example.) Yet I don't think there were enough of these small indications of different characters. This is perhaps by design, so as to force the audience to pay attention to the words more precisely. If so, I commend the notion. But when Claudius and Gertude are speaking, and Claudius suddenly changes his accent, and then the actress playing the Queen just shrugs and becomes the other gravedigger, it can take a moment to adjust to what has just happened.
I was also somewhat disappointed at the use of what seemed to be the gay stereotype in most of Hamlet's "mad" scenes. I don't at all believe the production or those involved in it are homophobic, and I could have accepted the use of the fay, high pitched voice for a few of the moments. But it seems to have been the go to set of affectations anytime Hamlet needed to be crazy, and it flirted with offensive near the end.
Still, any fan of minimalist production, experimental concepts, story/language-centric theatre and certainly of Hamlet should attend a production of BEDLAM's version of the play.(In repertory with Shaw's St. Joan, which gets the same four-actor treatment, with the same cast.) With them, it is more than simple "words, words, words" on a page.