If you look up the word bedlam in the dictionary, the definition says the word means something like "a scene of loud, passionate noise and confusion."
Bedlam is also the name of a New York City-based theater company. This week, the troupe is in Southern California presenting two classic plays that are — quite fittingly — often considered a bit confusing and full of passion: Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" and George Bernard Shaw’s "Saint Joan."
With nothing but a bare stage, a couple of flashlights and a few chairs, 49 characters come to life with only four actors doing all the work. Incredibly, on a Saturday during the run, the actors perform both plays — each of which runs three hours.
Aubie Merrylees, Dria Brown, Kahlil Garcia and Sam Massaro form an acting quartet from Bedlam Theatre Company’s traveling troupe. By trade they are performers, but they are also athletes of sorts.
During any given performance, you might notice cast members running throughout the common spaces at the Broad Stage to tell the stories of both plays.
“I think it’s really satisfying for an audience to watch a group of people having a good time on stage," says company artistic director Eric Tucker. "That shows — and it’s infectious!”
Tucker directs both "Hamlet" and "Saint Joan." With each story, he chose not to cut out very much of the original text. To balance that choice, he sped up the speech.
“People cut them so much,” explains Tucker. “It made me think, Could we do an almost un-cut 'Hamlet' and keep it at three hours if we just talk at the speed of thought and keep moving and don’t add in a lot of heavy transitions between every single scene? Really let it go!”
Tucker co-founded Bedlam in 2012. The company’s debut of "Saint Joan" was very well-received in New York. So it wasn’t long before he and the company found themselves running "Saint Joan" and "Hamlet" in repertory Off-Broadway. Not long after, this national tour quickly followed.
Tucker says he wanted to create a conversation of sorts between these two quintessential tragic heroes — one a saint and the other a prince.
“There is a central figure that is kind of against the rest of the world. Joan, it’s her against a very male world,” Tucker says. “She’s got the church and the state and the military. She becomes this very powerful figure, but she has to work her way through that in a very little amount of time. She’s inspiring, but she’s very irritating. She doesn’t have a filter on her mouth, so she pisses people off. She doesn’t understand politics at times. Hamlet is like that as well. He pisses a lot of people off.”
A quick story primer: "Hamlet" is the story of a prince who wants revenge for his father’s death. He suspects foul play. "Saint Joan" is a story about faith. In Shaw’s telling, Joan of Arc is a farm girl who challenges the church and the government. Meanwhile, she is forced to confront her own belief in God.
It’s a difficult position that actress Dria Brown understands very well in her role as Joan.
“Last year my mom, who for me was the most perfect person on the planet, was diagnosed with ALS,” Brown says. “And it really sent a shockwave through our family of like, How do we handle this? Faith is important in my family. I come from a line of ministers. And part of me was really angry with God and was like, How can we stand for him? How can we believe in something that has just abandoned us?
"Something that Joan says is, 'Do you think you can frighten me by telling me I’m alone? My country is alone. God is alone. And what is my loneliness before my country and my God?' It’s a constant question for me now. My faith has just been so tried in this really awful period of my mother’s sickness. I feel like my entire family has fallen apart in the best way and the worst way.
“[My mother] is completely paralyzed. My dad is her health aide, 24-7. He quit his job and he takes care of my mother. It’s really informed my Joan so much of this deep sadness that I have for my mother, this deep sadness that Joan has for her country … I [feel] like if Joan can have an unshakeable faith after someone telling her her voices have deceived her, and she’s going to be burned at the stake, and she’s going to go through this as a girl who is 19, with her held high, then I can do whatever.”
Actor Kahlil Garcia echoes the sentiments of his cast mate. He finds that the words from these two shows from yesteryear, especially "Saint Joan," still form calls to action today.
“Somehow, it’s always fitting to the time,” Garcia says. “Our view may change on a specific issue, but it will still shine a specific light. Just like in the 2018 lens, Joan is like a 17-year-old woman. It reminded me of the students in Parkland. It’s like you have these kids who are just speaking truth to power in a way that no one else can. And, in a way, no one else can say it.”
Which brings us to the way these four actors say the words of nearly 50 different characters. For Garcia, it can begin as simply as a physical gesture. A finger wag or the way a character might stand.
“You kind of find little things that help you, Garcia says. "For me, I have different dialects. With John de Stogumber [in 'Saint Joan'] ... it’s sort of my attempt at Winston Churchill. With Polonius, he’s a bit higher in the register. A bit less of a bulldog. And the Dauphin is almost my version of David Hyde Pierce. It’s higher in my vocal register. He lets everyone know how much smarter he is than everyone else in the court. That’s like the jumping off point.”
Aubie Merryless plays the lead in "Hamlet," among many other roles.
“There’s a moment where we are throwing hats and changing characters towards the end of the play," Merryless says. "People are sort of laughing. The audience laughs and I feel it’s sort of an acknowledgement of what’s happening. And enjoyment of that sort of virtuosity. And that’s cool. That was a surprise. I was not expecting that.”
Ultimately, no matter which character these actors slip into, they never forget the reason why the words of Shakespeare and Shaw still resonate today.
Actor Sam Massaro says: “My favorite line is — Joan says this in the third act — ‘If we were as simple in the field as you are in your courts and palaces, there would soon be no wheat to make bread for you.’ It's a huge part of the play for me — a huge part of why I enjoy saying these words every night. It’s speaking truth to power. If we common folk were as simple as the people in power, the world would crumble.”
"Hamlet" and "Saint Joan" play through April 15 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.