BEDLAM’S HAMLET & SAINT JOAN AT ARTSEMERSON
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have Saturday Night Live devote six hours to the telling of classic plays, boy, have I got a show for you. Two, in fact.
Bedlam, a relatively young theater troupe out of New York, has quickly earned widespread acclaim for its sparse reimaginings of classics. Just this winter, its Sense & Sensibility had a run at the American Repertory Theater.
If the storytelling of Sense & Sensibility wasn’t always clear, it remained inoffensive to me mostly because the production was so spirited and good-natured. Eric Tucker, co-founder and artistic director of Bedlam, directed that production, as he is now at the helm of this Saint Joan/Hamlet remounting that he first staged back in 2012.
To say that critics creamed themselves over Bedlam’s take on these two plays would be an understatement. But aside from the skill that goes into splicing apart these works to facilitate their performance by only four actors, there is precious little to admire about these revivals, now playing in repertory at ArtsEmerson through March 25.
I did mention that there are only four actors performing these plays, didn’t I?
This might be an effective gimmick if those four actors were of extraordinary talent—as they must have been in those other mountings that garnered rave reviews. But that isn’t the case here, and with that Saint Joan and Hamlet is an even tougher sell.
Don’t get me wrong—the four actors are talented. There’s no doubt that they were the stars of their high school drama club’s improv exercises, which is what this production feels like: an extended game of improv.
The four actors play nearly 60 roles, and if you’re wondering how on earth that’s possible, I assure you, it isn’t.
The plays are performed, more or less, in street clothes on a cavernous, empty stage. There are some seats for the audience on all three sides of the stage, though they’re only used sporadically. One of the biggest problems with both Saint Joan and Hamlet is that it is frequently impossible to understand what’s being said.
The actors do not appear to have individual microphones, which on a setless, cavernous stage in a 1,200-seat barn is a bad idea. The actors’ sound is swallowed whole, particularly in the second act of Saint Joan when the curtain rises completely.
There are costume pieces added periodically, but because the cast is mostly in street clothes, inaudible, and without any real set or atmosphere, it felt like I was eavesdropping on a rehearsal for a student production. (Director Eric Tucker “designed” both the costumes and the sound design, so I guess you could say he’s 0 for 3 here). Curiously, the house lights are left on for nearly all of both plays, which gave the entire ordeal a school assembly feel.
Oh, and here’s a bit of advice: When a play is running three hours, the third act is not the time to introduce a character with a stutter.
I can say, though, that the first act of Hamlet is completely thrilling. The pitch-black house is turned into the Elsinore ramparts to great effect. And under better circumstances, Aubie Merrylees would be a terrific Hamlet.
I caught Saint Joan and Hamlet in a single day, which translates to roughly six hours of theater. And by that sixth hour, I no longer thought of Bedlam as a self-serving extended improv exercise. No, I had come to see Bedlam’s work as something else entirely by evening’s end.
It’s flat-out intolerable.