Of all the memorable moments in Bedlam’s new production of “Hamlet,” perhaps my favorite arrives three hours in. Gertrude (Andrus Nichols) and Claudius (Tom O’Keefe), having just processed the death of Ophelia, share a tense moment. Staring into each other’s eyes, Claudius inexplicably falls into a crouch, places his hand on his back, and starts spouting a lower-class accent. Gertrude, inspired, follows suit. So goes the production’s most elaborate set change, switching in a blink from tragedy to comedy, court to graveyard. In a play about the fundamental fickleness of all circumstances, what could be more satisfying?
For a lesser theater company, casting “Hamlet,” unabridged, with four actors and no set would be sufficient gimmick to justify an average production. For Bedlam, under Eric Tucker’s direction, the minimalism is a means to an end: the most fluid, most high-pressure, and most direct access to Elsinore possible. It’s as though centuries of maudlin costumes, overwrought sets, and bad English papers have vaporized to leave the real animal, in flesh and blood, to roam free.
And it is a fiery beast. Nichols and O’Keefe, along with Ted Lewis and Tucker (as Hamlet), run breathlessly around the tiny stage of Access Theater, leaping into their many characters, tossing the necessary props, and churning out the verse as though possessed by the author’s demons. Gape too much at the performers’ virtuosity, though, and you’ll miss the direction, which is a lesson in choreographic detail. The placement of a hat, the rustling of backstage props, the sudden revelation that an overlooked corner is a performing space—each moment taps the story for extra ounces of nuance. The more familiar you are with the play, the more rewards are in store.
Those for whom the script is more distant will struggle at times to follow the evening’s slings and arrows. But it won’t be hard to mark Hamlet’s long and uneven march to destruction. Tucker plays him more as pissant than melancholic, taking the Ghost’s missive as an excuse for his hostile temper, though Tucker’s smooth voice conveys sincerity beneath the Dane’s misdirected ennui. Nichols’ Ophelia begins the play as a nearly cracked egg, and her mental collapse is a heartbreaking portrait of abused fragility. O’Keefe’s Claudius is hot rather than imperious, a confident alpha male who seeks less to impress than to survive. Perhaps the most impressive performance, though, belongs to Ted Lewis, who moves swiftly through Polonius, Laertes, and Horatio like he’s flipping cards. His hulky frame gives each man’s flaws a back to break. His is the rare Polonius I was sad to see go.
The Access Theatre is one of those unassuming Off-Off-Broadway spaces, stacked with worn-out movie theater seats and reached by a long flight of stairs, where one expects more amateur earnestness than magic. It takes artists of Bedlam’s craft to coax a universe out of its corners. “Hamlet” runs in rep through April with the company’s first-rate “Saint Joan.” See both.
Presented by Bedlam at Access Theater, 380 Broadway, NYC. Feb. 17–April 7. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.theatrebedlam.org.
Critic’s Score: A