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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Hamlet & St. Joan
HamletThis is a rematch of Bedlam's acclaimed Off Broadway engagement in 2013. The laudably un-heavy-handed and generally respectfully done plays are now in rotating repertory at the McCarter Theater Center, with a cast of just four to play all the characters in both plays.
Last Saturday for me began at 3 pm with Hamlet lasting exactly three hours. Edmund Lewis, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe and company director Eric Tucker took on the various roles with varying degrees of esprit de corps. The Bedlam approach to Hamlet may not be a purists' delight, but considering the familiarity many of us have with the basic story, their vision of the play and their interpretations of the prominent characters are refreshing without running the risk of parody.
The complicated and bearded Dane in casual contemporary attire deports himself nobly and renders his famous soliloquies with exceptional clarity and carefully invested unconformity. Ms. Nichols handles the switcheroo from the duplicitous Queen Gertrude into the unwittingly duped Ophelia by freeing up her pony tail but more importantly 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 usual, but also surprisingly doesn't play upon the humor inherent in his advice to Laertes. Best moments include Polonius's tendency to go blank mid speech and also 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.
The playing area is rearranged for each act with floor seating and the bleacher seating shifted to accommodate the action. Those members of the audience not seated in the auditorium 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.
The asides are given additional heft as the actors intentionally interact with the audience. It's great fun to participate and it doesn't detract from the intensity of the drama. The actors also use the steep aisles of the Berlind effectively throughout the play.
The modernist affectations, including the use of flash-lights on the battlement and the ghostly projections are part of a splendidly unpretentious artistic design that includes John McDermott's spare settings enhanced by Les Dickert's eerie lighting.
St. JoanThe seating is again reconfigured to bring Shaw's harrowing 1923 drama with twenty-two 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 added a bit of humor in an otherwise grim drama.
To be honest, St. Joan is much more ponderous and a lot less fun to watch than Hamlet but not without its worthiness.
While the six scenes resonate with that which is Shaw, there is not a moment in which the actors appear even slightly daunted by his talky salvos.
As portrayed heroically and with little pretense of being a girl of sixteen, Ms Nichols's Joan is understandably characterized as more warrior-woman than saint (a stance that has also inspired some of the greatest actors of the twentieth century including Katherine Cornell, Uta Hagen and Lynn Redgrave). It's a unique performance that also radiates with the devotion to her faith and dedication to her cause.
The dozen other roles are shared by the other three actors, each of whom contribute 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. We see a young 15th century French woman who leads French troops against the English directly in the face of a male-entrenched hierarchy. O'Keefe make 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 reluctant to assume any authority over the army, and who becomes the soulless Chaplain who campaigns for Joan's death.
You won't see much if anything that subscribes to the 15th century in the trappings but you'll again becomes the on-looker and also a participant in the infamous trial scene and its aftermath.
While I would like to suggest seeing both plays but St. Joan is less likely come around again as soon as Hamlet so might be a good choice if you have time for just one.
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Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Eric Tucker
Cast: Eric Tucker (Hamlet), Andrus Nichols (Gertrude, Ophelia and others), Edmund Lewis (Polonius/Horatio and others), Tom O'Keefe (Claudius, Rsencrantz and others)
St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Eric Tucker
Cast: Erick Tucker (Dunois/Warwick and others), Andrus Nichols (Joan), Edmund Lewis (Dauphin/John de Stogumber and others), Tom O'Keefe (Cauchon/Poulengey and others
All additional credits for both plays are the same
Set Design: John McDermott
Lighting Design: Les Dickert
Fight Director: Trampas Thompson
Production Stage Manager Diane Healy
Running Time: both plays each 3 hours including 2 intermissions
At McCarter Center
Performances: Tues. Wed. Thurs. at 7:30 pm; Fri. & Sat. at 8 pm; Sat. at 3 pm; Sun. at 2 and 7:30 pm.
From 01/13/17 Ends 02/12/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performances 01/21/17
NJ Theatre Alliance
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