Timely Tales from Shakespeare and Shaw

New York City–Based Bedlam Brings Resonant Classics to UCSB

UCSB Arts & Lectures brings Bedlam’s productions of Saint Joan and Hamlet to UCSB’s Campbell Hall next week.

C. King Photography

UCSB Arts & Lectures brings Bedlam’s productions of Saint Joan and Hamlet to UCSB’s Campbell Hall next week.

She is still in her teens, but she’s a natural leader — and someone with a strong sense of right and wrong. She has a clear vision of a better society and is charismatic enough to convince people to help her make it a reality. Emma Gonzalez, or one of the other Parkland, Florida, teens leading the fight for gun control? Well, sure. But the description also fits Joan of Arc, at least as she is portrayed in George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play Saint Joan.

“There’s something about her faith — the fact she follows her own path and does what she believes is right,” said Eric Tucker, artistic director of the New York City–based company Bedlam. “This is the story of a strong woman who is doing what she feels she has to do. I think that resonates today.”

It certainly does. A new production of the classic is about to open on Broadway, while Tucker’s acclaimed 2012 staging continues its national tour. UCSB Arts & Lectures will bring it to Campbell Hall April 19, followed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet on April 20.

Each is performed by four actors who “attack their myriad of roles with gusto, morphing from one character to the next, often in the same scene,” Don Aucoin wrote in the Boston Globe last month. “In their bravura fusion of versatility, dexterity, and clarity, they’re executing the verbal and intellectual equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil act.”

Tucker discussed his own vision in a telephone interview with the Independent from his New York City home.

How do you describe the Bedlam aesthetic? Very minimal sets, costumes, props. We only use what we absolutely need. There are a couple of chairs, a table — nothing to speak of. We wanted to make it about the text and the storytelling. I think theater should be about the imagination. That’s what theater can do — spark the imagination of the audience. That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch stuff that’s done minimally. It’s more surprising and magical.

Will there be audience members sitting onstage for both shows? Yes, and that onstage seating gets rearranged for different acts. Audiences can be afraid of sitting onstage, but there’s no interaction with the actors at all. You just feel closer to the action. We have a young, energetic group of actors, and they have found a lot of humor, not only in Saint Joan — Shaw is such a brilliant, witty writer — but also in Hamlet. It’s nice if you can find the humor, because it helps audiences stomach the tragedy. It’s like what we’re all feeling today [when we read the news from Washington]. You have to laugh!

On that subject, you first staged these when Obama was president and have now taken them into the Trump era. Has that new political context changed the way they have been received? We did both of these plays early last year at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, and throughout both shows, we would hear groans and little laughs at certain lines that resonated. Hamlet saying, “One can smile and smile and be a villain” had real resonance — more so than I had felt with other audiences when we did it pre-Trump. That’s also true of all those lines in which Hamlet talks about how shocked he is that Claudius has become king. How could he possibly be king?

So which character do you relate to more — the headstrong Joan or the indecisive Hamlet? I probably relate more to Hamlet. I have found a real lack of confidence in the character that resonates with me. Artists in general have a lot of self-doubt. But I’m drawn to the Joan character because she’s so inspiring.

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Bedlam performs Saint Joan Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m., and Hamlet Friday, April 20, at 7 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.