The final scene of Hamlet, with its high body count, doesn't usually get many laughs. Not so if Bedlam is staging it. Bedlam, an extraordinary company of four actors performing the play in repertory with George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre, remains true to Shakespeare's play and language while surprising you at almost every turn.
In its "complete" version, Hamlet is beastly long. Bedlam has done some judicious trimming to tame the length without sacrificing a thing. The familiar story still goes like this: Sullen Hamlet (Eric Tucker) can't get over the fact that his father has died and his mother has married his uncle. One night, his father's ghost appears and reveals that he was murdered by his treacherous brother. Hamlet swears to avenge his father's death by murdering his uncle, but being an overwrought, angst-ridden youth, he procrastinates, unable to convince himself to carry out his bloody task.
In an impetuous act, Hamlet kills the king's advisor, Polonius, father of Laertes and Hamlet's on-again off-again girlfriend, Ophelia. After Hamlet rejects her and kills her father, Ophelia loses it and drowns herself. Enraged, Laertes has no problem trying to avenge his father's death and sister's suicide, so he challenges Hamlet to a duel. At this battle of avenging sons, members of the royal family start dropping like flies: The king tries to kill Hamlet with a poisoned cup of wine, but the queen drinks it by accident. Then Hamlet, Laertes, and the king all meet their ends at the tip of a poisoned sword. As the bodies pile up, young Fortinbras, the son of a Norway's former king, enters, claims the Danish crown, and proclaims that Hamlet's story shall be remembered through the ages.
No matter how well you know this story, Bedlam's production will catch you off guard. First, the entire theater is Bedlam's stage. Seats are arranged to allow actors to move freely among the audience, so don't be alarmed if Hamlet sits down beside you and places his arm around the back of your chair while he's talking to the Gravedigger. Seating arrangements change between the acts as well to keep the audience in the midst of the action. It's all part of Bedlam's immersive approach to theater — and it's thrilling.
But Bedlam's chief appeal is in its four actors and their nuanced, masterful performances. Tucker (also the director), Andrus Nichols, Edmund Lewis, and Tom O'Keefe portray all of the play's many characters, now and then stepping briskly into and out of one another's roles, to humorous effect. Have you ever seen King Claudius and Queen Gertrude transform into gravediggers in the blink of an eye? It happens so naturally and organically that you may find yourself wondering if that's exactly what Shakespeare had in mind.
This isn't to say that Bedlam doesn't take the play seriously. Tucker knows when to tease out the play's comical aspects but also when to wear the tragic mask. Andrus Nichols brings such remorse to Queen Gertrude in her confrontation scene with Hamlet that you might find tears well up in your eyes. Tom O'Keefe somehow makes you want to forgive Claudius as he kneels to confess his sins, then he dashes all those feelings of sympathy with a sudden, unrepentant glance. And there's exceptionally funny Edmund Lewis, who, when he enters as the enraged and vengeful Laertes, simply terrifies.
This juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, coupled with the breathtaking talent of its actors, makes Bedlam's Hamlet one of the richest, most entertaining theatrical experiences you may have this season. Regarding that laugh in the final tragic scene, it's just as deliciously perfect as the other unexpected turns and lane changes that Bedlam makes on this exciting trip, and by the end, everyone in the audience is on board. Part of Bedlam's magic lies in its ability to take a well-known play and make you feel like you're experiencing it for the first time.