Though this be madness, yet there is method in it. To take on one of Shakespeare’s epic dramas with only four actors portraying all of the characters; the very definition of insanity, but a well executed method gives this tragic classic a rousing good production. The Olney Theatre Center presents, in rotating repertory with St. Joan, BEDLAM Theatre’s production of Hamlet, a riveting new look at the bloody drama featuring a quartet of talented actors. Directed by Eric Tucker, the company’s Artistic Director, this minimalist approach, from bare walls to a highly concentrated core of performers, allows the audience to see Shakespeare’s characters in their rawest form; exposing the plot for the penned genius that it is.
The element of note, outside the size of the cast, is the extreme use of lighting, and its absence, in this production. Lighting Designer Marc Hurst creates intense moments of darkness in which some of the spookier scenes of the production unfold. Both of the opening scenes are spent in total darkness, disbursed only by the harsh white, almost ethereal glow of flashlights carried by the actors. This too becomes the fashion for the end of the production, leaving the carnage of the play’s final scene to wallow in darkness. Hurst balances the lighting throughout the production to draw the audience’s attention specifically to a moment or individual, like the glare that is used during Act II with full house lights up and an additional few to call attention to the exchanges between Hamlet and Polonius.
Director Eric Tucker maintains the integrity of the minimalist approach by choosing to not bog down the performance with extravagant costumes or set pieces. There are even moments when other actors serve as the furniture, Hamlet in particular taking an opportunity to sit atop everyone else. A simple addition and removal of a pair of spectacles delineates the difference between Laertes and his father, Polonius, while Ophelia and Gertrude depend solely on their physicality and tone of voice. Tucker’s casting choices are intense and often symbolic. Choosing to have the same actor play Polonius, Laertes, and Horatio speaks deeply to the themes of friendships and betrayals. Having Hamlet appear as his own father’s ghost in the opening scene is a clever tribute to one of the more notable quotes of the work, “to thine own self be true.”
The four actors work exceedingly well together and their sharp sense of timing allows for flawless switches between characters. The brilliance with these shifts is that they often create little pockets of humor in this otherwise morose play. Having Polonius and Laertes in the same scene, (played by the same actor) and conversing with one another makes for an amusing moment. Gertrude and Claudius conversing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern creates a similar paradigm. Tucker ensures that while humor does arise that the integrity of the drama remains honest; they all play emotional intensity for truth and never cheat moments for the sake of a laugh.
Marching about as the knave of knaves is Tom O’Keefe, playing mainly Claudius but also several others. O’Keefe has a divine moment of comedy that propels the very end of the play high before it plummets low into the blood-bath kill-fest. His portrayal of Claudius is villainous, bordering on depraved, particularly when he spits poisoned speeches at Laertes for his plot to kill Hamlet. Nary a touch of madness within him, O’Keefe is the one character that keeps his wits about him in every role. He drives the scene at the grave with his corny comic accent as the Gravedigger and watching him snap from that awkward side character back into the highly revered Claudius is quite impressive.
Andrus Nichols, as the sole female in the group, takes on five main roles as well as a few roles that are shared by all (including the ghost king, and the players). Nichols is a versatile performer, her most drastic switches coming from her portrayal of Gertrude and Ophelia. As Gertrude she carries a more formal air about her person; reserved, refined, aristocratic in a sense, yet also scandalous; arduously attentive to Claudius. When facing off against Hamlet in the infamous mother-son chamber scene, she holds her own but is easily terrorized by his barking lunacy. When delivering the tragic news of Ophelia her face falls, her voice truly harrowed as if it pains her to speak. Nichols, as the softer female of Ophelia becomes slowly unwound in her portrayal. Starting with a terrified approach which echoes physically through her body (the constant wringing of the hands, bowed head, nervous facial expressions) gently unfurls into a dreamy delusion, her voice carrying sweet songs of insanity after Hamlet bellows at her.
Ted Lewis adapts the most character voices for his various roles. Polonius, defined by his glasses and pinched voice, speaks very differently from his ill-tempered son Laertes, which is very different from the mild and rational Horatio, whom also dons a hat. His interactions as Horatio with Hamlet speak a testament to how thick their bonds of brotherly friendship lie. He rages with a fury unfettered as Laertes, particularly heading into the sword fight, and when he waxes on about madness as Polonius it’s as if his speech has infected his mind; the zany effect playing out thoroughly over his face. Keep an eye out for his comic antics with some subtle St. Joan references thrown in.
Taking the title role is Director Eric Tucker. A more complex and deeply dynamic Hamlet will be difficult to find. There is a balance to his madness, which begs the long-standing question as to whether or not Hamlet actually went mad or was merely consumed by his grief and need for vengeance. Tucker’s portrayal presents the intricate nuances of Hamlet’s character in a light most intriguing; adding hints of flippancy to the character and augmenting them in places like the “fishmonger” exchange with Polonius and again when speaking of Polonius’ death. His emotional depth knows no bounds, his expressivity of such going to great lengths, particularly when bellowing at the top of his lungs. Tucker is clearly understood despite the surge in volume and emotional expression, making it even more haunting to watch. His fury bursts forth at precise moments, showcasing Tucker’s keen sense of dramatic timing; an honest performance that delivers swift justice to the little Prince of Denmark.
BEDLAM’s Hamlet is sheer bedlam, but thoroughly amazing, and hardly feels as long as its actual running time. It’s a most enjoyable for any fan of Shakespeare.
Running Time: Approximately three hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions.
Hamlet plays in rotating repertory with St. Joan through October 20, 2013 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.