Joan of Arc dared greatly. The prince of Elsinore dared — but did a lot more dithering. That difference aside, the protagonists of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” have a lot in common: Both are young visionaries who challenge authority and the status quo in a time of war. Both claim to communicate with supernatural beings — and both are suspected of being crazy.
In other words, the artists who make up the New York-based theater company Bedlam knew what they were doing when they paired up Shaw’s and Shakespeare’s plays for a run at Olney Theatre Center.
Directed by Eric Tucker, the rather frantic “Hamlet” and the more moving and trenchant “Saint Joan” run in rotating repertory at Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab through Oct. 20. Suitably enough, given the risk-taking propensities of the plays’ title characters, the Bedlam productions boast their own audacity: Each relies on a mere four actors, in modern dress, on a stage that features only bare-bones set elements.
All in all, the approach allows the acting quartet — Tucker (Bedlam’s artistic director), Andrus Nichols (Bedlam’s producing director), Tom O’Keefe and Ted Lewis — to play dozens of characters over the course of the repertoire. The performer in the title role (Tucker as Hamlet, and Nichols as Joan) sticks to that assignment in that play; otherwise, the actors jump from role to role, with just a gesture, or the donning of a costume piece, to signal the switch.
More strikingly, multiple actors sometimes depict a single character: In a sequence in “Saint Joan,” for instance, actors take turns portraying the French military officer Gilles de Rais (a.k.a. Bluebeard), raising a hand to finger an invisible blue beard, so that we understand who’s speaking. (Potentially helpful crib sheets — summarizing the relationships between the characters and identifying the actors that shoulder various roles — are distributed with the playbills.)
What with other inventive gambits — the motorcycle helmet that stands in for military garb in both shows; the name of a town written in glow-in-the-dark letters on a wall, to signal a setting shift in “Saint Joan;” and more — each production is a showcase of artistic ingenuity, even if the ingenuity sometimes calls attention to itself, rather than illuminating the storytelling.
The approach is more satisfying in “Saint Joan,” partly because Shaw’s emphasis on ideas creates a valuable steadiness — the concepts resonate, regardless of which role-juggling actor is enunciating them — but principally because Nichols’s vibrant, nuanced, and appealing portrait of Joan gives the show a propulsive through-line. Scampering onto the stage with coltish excitement, Joan is a study in adolescent giddiness when we first meet her; in successive scenes, she seems increasingly mature and disillusioned, right through to her exhausted, stubborn showdown with the clergy who sentence her to death.
Other notable portraits in “Saint Joan” include Lewis’s petulant, self-doubting Dauphin, Tucker’s gracefully pragmatic commander Dunois and O’Keefe’s coolly focused Bishop of Beauvais. But this is Nichols’s show, and her brilliantly calibrated turn in the epilogue, especially, helps the production pack a triumphant emotional wallop.
“Hamlet” is less involving, partly because some of the actors (not Nichols) tend to rush their lines and partly because the imaginative but breathless transitions between scenes and roles sometimes contribute to an overly hectic atmosphere. Tucker’s slightly seedy, obnoxious Hamlet is an effective troublemaker, even if it’s hard to see him as the erstwhile “expectancy and rose of the fair state” (to quote Ophelia, played by Nichols). To cite a few other turns: O’Keefe gives a poignant edge to Claudius, and Lewis ably channels Polonius’s amiable, doddering stuffiness.
At one point, eliminating the need for Polonius to exit a scene, Tucker simply sits on Lewis’s lap: Presto, practically no visible Polonius. The strategy is somewhat distracting — you keep wondering if Lewis is uncomfortable — but, like so many moments in these shows, it is undeniably bold.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by William Shakespeare
by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Eric Tucker; lighting design, Marc Hurst; fight choreographer, Trampis Thompson; production stage manager, Elisabeth A. Ribar; director of production, Dennis A. Blackledge. “Hamlet”: About three hours. “Saint Joan”: Two hours and 45 minutes. In rotating repertory through Oct. 20 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Visit www.olneytheatre.org or call 301.924.3400.