New York City’s award-winning Bedlam performed two classic works of theater at UCSB last week courtesy of Arts & Lectures: George Bernard Shaw’s >Saint Joan on Thursday and William Shakespeare’s >Hamlet on Friday.
Attending Hamlet made me wish I’d seen the Thursday show as well.
Just four actors play all of the roles in the play. Aubie Merrylees plays only the title character. Aundria Brown, Kahlil Garcia and Sam Massaro performed all the rest. And in Hamlet, that meant a lot of character switching.
Three rows of audience members sat on risers on the stage. With so little real estate remaining in front of them, I was curious how the play could take place. Here’s how: Bedlam makes the audience part of the play and vice versa.
When an actor plays both adviser and advisee early in the story, he bestows wisdom upon a seated audience member on the stage before reclaiming that identity to speak the recipient’s lines.
Scenes that involve travel, chase or new locations take actors up and down the aisles, onto seats in the house and behind audience members seated on the stage.
And their use of the space is truly engaging.
For this, Campbell Hall was ideal. With its lecture-stage so low and close to the audience, the entire hall was visible from all seats.
In the first scene, the play spans the entire theater, with a ghost sighting taking place from the stage across a house lit only by flashlights to the sound booth.
Though costuming was mostly casual contemporary, occasional character changes were effected by simple additions that looked more period-authentic, tight fitting gray hoods to transform friends into guards, or more fantastical: I don’t really know what the motorcycle helmet was supposed to convey.
If a single actor portrayed different characters in the same scene, or even the same conversation, then donning or removing eyeglasses, or turning a collar up and down did the trick.
Highlights included Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Claudius’ stoner pawns, Garcia capturing Polonius’ delight in his own over-talking, Brown’s beat boxing, and many of Hamlet’s lighter interactions that featured witty staging, Merrylees’ astute timing and clever uses of the human body as set features.
Sound was a challenge, however. Campbell’s one-room acoustics posed difficulties hearing lines when actors were facing any direction other than toward the center of the house.
The speaking was at times so fast that I thought the actors were rushing through the dialogue to keep us engaged or to shorten the run time of the performance.
Language that’s not native to the ears of contemporary listeners is harder to grasp when spoken at high speed and when you can’t make out what’s being said because the actors are facing each other and not the audience.
If you remembered the soliloquies from school, you could catch them all. And they were moving. Merrylees nailed Hamlet’s angst and suffering. But any parts that weren’t already burned into your brain, and without much in the way of conventional theatrical context to help you piece it together, got easily lost.
Despite Bedlam’s innovative staging and insightful acting, we didn’t stay past the second intermission (2½ hours into the performance).
While I appreciate the company holding true to Shakespeare’s complete text, there’s just too much talking in Hamlet that’s too hard to understand to keep many of us there until the bitter end.
The definition of Bedlam is uproar and confusion. Both were present in this production of Hamlet.
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