That which was once old always becomes new again. This is particularly true of the classic plays “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan,” staged by the wickedly fresh theater company, Bedlam, at McCarter Theatre in Princeton starting January 13. The company, just five years old, has found massive success off-Broadway, giving vibrant life to classic works with a minimalist take, and has now begun to perform around the country.
This repertory pairing of William Shakespeare’s quintessential tragedy and George Bernard Shaw’s respected, if lesser known, drama is playing through February 12, and promises to help theatergoers understand these important works like never before.
“The idea is we’re making clearer and clearer storytelling for the audience,” says Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s artistic director, who directs and acts in “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan.” The plays are performed by only four actors, taking on the multitude of characters that appear in each. If this approach sounds like it would be confusing to watch, Bedlam has another plan in mind.
“When you go to see a Shakespeare play with 25 people in it, there are people in the audience who are like, ‘I can’t follow this!’ Tucker says. “Whenever you reduce a cast, you’ve got to sit up and listen in a different way, because you’re going to be following these people playing lots of roles in a play that already isn’t the kind of language you’re used to hearing every single day.”
In “Hamlet,” Tucker plays the title character, with the rest of the actors filling all the other roles. Andrus Nichols plays Joan of Arc in “Saint Joan,” while the same remaining three performers pull triple, even quadruple, duty.
Citing that the majority of audience members who come to the show actually have never seen a production of “Hamlet,” Tucker justifies Bedlam’s storytelling approach, which has been the key to its success.
“Just because these plays are classics doesn’t mean we should assume the audience has seen them before. One should put up a play and assume people are coming for the first time; let’s treat it like a new play.”
When this production ran at New York’s Lynn Redgrave Theater in 2014, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley said of Bedlam, “they make sure their audience, including virgins to this material, is as on top of the story as they are.”
How does Bedlam achieve that with such dense material? Tucker says it all starts with the performers themselves, in rehearsal.
“My big goal when I founded the company was I really wanted to make it a part of our mission to provide ample rehearsal time,” Tucker says. “I’d rather raise more money for rehearsal time than more money for special effects, bigger sets or better costumes.”
Practice does indeed make perfect for Bedlam. When they first produced “Saint Joan” in 2012, the cast rehearsed for eight weeks, not including technical rehearsals. The standard rehearsal period for most plays is around three weeks.
“I really wanted us to know that text backward and forward. We spent a month delving into the text and the relationships before even thinking about staging,” Tucker says. “I really wanted us to know the text so that it was crystal clear to us, and therefore, the audience. It never stops unfolding; you see new things and it’s so cool.”
“Joan feels like the equivalent of Hamlet, for a woman,” Tucker says. “Hamlet and Joan are both loaners. It’s sort of them against the rest of the world. It felt like they could bookend each other well.”
In real life, the shows’ stars also bookend each other. Tucker and Andrus play the title roles in “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan,” respectively, and are the theater company’s cofounders.
“Saint Joan” was Bedlam’s first production. Its success lead to productions of “Hamlet” and Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Most recently, Bedlam enjoyed nearly a year-long run of its adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility” at off-Broadway’s Gym at Judson, which was a critical and box office hit.
Now having had productions in Massachusetts, Maryland and Texas – with plans for a Los Angeles run of “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan” in 2018 – as well as being one of the hottest names in New York theater, Tucker feels rather affectionate toward the show that started it all.
“As a director, these shows feel like children and you put them out into the world,” Tucker says. “’Saint Joan’ feels special as a Bedlam show, because it was our first one. It really put us on the map.”
Now that Bedlam is on the map, it sounds like it’s about to be all over it.
“Hamlet” and “Saint Joan” are in rotating repertory at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, January 13-February 12. For tickets and more information, visit www.mccarter.org.