"Words, words, words" -- Hamlet
Words matter. In the theatre they tell the plot, characters, conflict, and ideas; and from the pens of preeminent playwrights like William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, the words they write come to full life through skilled actors.
In an astute programming stratagem, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Artistic Director Rick Dildine scheduled New York City's "Bedlam Theatre Company" to perform Shakespeare's Hamlet and Shaw's Saint Joan in repertory opposite Susan Ferrara's Buzz [closed last weekend, and reviewed earlier on this site] staged in the ASF Scene Shop and recounting the efforts of Mary Ann "Buzz" Goodbody to stage an unconventional Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "The Other Place" (a tin shed used for experimental stripped-down versions of Shakespeare beginning in the 1970s).
"Bedlam" director Eric Tucker stages the two productions unconventionally, with the same four actors [Dria Brown, Mike Labbadia, Edmund Lewis, Andy Rindlisbach] playing about two-dozen characters in each play, using minimal set and props, and contemporary costumes, thereby allowing audiences to focus on the words that demonstrate the strengths of the texts.
During each show's two intermissions, as well as at the conclusions of Hamlet and Saint Joan, audience members engaged in animated conversations about their experiences with the productions. Overheard comments praising the energetic acting and the contemporary resonances of the plays' themes are clear indications that Montgomery audiences want to engage with more classical productions and their heightened language, emotional intensity, and persuasive arguments.
The productions are not without their challenges: each one runs a little over three-hours [though the time seems to go by quickly], lengthy expository information is not always clear, adjustments to the quick character changes may be confusing [sometimes an actor will play more than one character in a scene with a mere shift of posture or vocal inflection, or a minor costume modification], and the rapid-fire dialogue, occasionally delivered in stage darkness, is hard to follow at times.
Hamlet is likely the more familiar play to local audiences, though there is a bit of a struggle to understand important expository words by playing the first act in darkness or low lighting; the ghost sequences use flashlights to good effect, though. Yet the suggestion of Hamlet's [Mr. Rindlisbach] "feigned madness", so important to the plot, gets lost in stage business. -- Mr. Tucker breaks much of the play's stress with comic elements that are inherent in Shakespeare's script; and while there is a lot of emotional content in it and in the performances, this production comes off more as an intellectual exercise.
Saint Joan succeeds better. With a powerhouse performance by Ms. Brown at the center of the story of Joan's trajectory from farm girl to soldier to conquerer to martyr, Shaw's arguments on opposite sides -- church/state, nationalism of France/England, variant philosophies -- are articulated in words with such sensible assurance that the speaker is correct, that audiences find themselves agreeing at times with each side. The language is precise and persuasive. And that is its strength, especially as we can see the correspondence to our own social and political issues of nationalism, separation of Church and State, political nearsightedness...and perhaps learn from the past.