Coming out of a play a couple of years ago, my friend Dennis said, with a slow shake of his head, “I do not know how actors do what they do.’’
Those words came back to me late Saturday afternoon as I was leaving the Cutler Majestic Theatre, where I’d just experienced a 2½-hour production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan’’ — featuring a mere cast of four — by the New York-based theater company known as Bedlam.
What made me shake my own head was not just their superb performance of Shaw’s drama about the life and death of Joan of Arc, but the knowledge that in just a few hours those same four actors were going to hurl themselves into “Hamlet,’’ another 2½-hour show.
So, having just held us spellbound as the doomed Maid of Orleans, the remarkable Aundria Brown would shoulder the divergent demands of Ophelia and Gertrude in “Hamlet.’’ Aubie Merrylees would transition from a nobleman allied with Joan into the daunting role of Hamlet. After playing the dithering Dauphin in “Saint Joan,’’ Kahlil Garcia would portray both stalwart Horatio and sententious Polonius in “Hamlet.’’ After portraying a doctrinaire bishop in “Saint Joan,’’ Sam Massaro would switch to the slippery, usurping Claudius, whose murder of Hamlet’s royal father and marriage to his mother plunges our hero into the most famous existential/psychological crisis in all of dramatic literature.
And that’s but a fraction of the quartet’s duties. All told, they play 49 roles in the two fast-flowing, high-spirited productions, which are both directed by Eric Tucker, the artistic director and cofounder of Bedlam. The shows, both of which are punctuated by two intermissions, are running in repertory at the Cutler Majestic through March 25 and should not be missed. With Shaw and especially Shakespeare, these actors are juggling enormously complex language and ideas, but their facility makes it seem (key word) effortless as they attack their myriad of roles with gusto, morphing from one character to the next, often in the same scene.
In their bravura fusion of versatility, dexterity, and clarity, they’re executing the verbal and intellectual equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil act. Just as with Cirque, the exceedingly rare flub — such as when Merrylees, as Hamlet, told Garcia’s Horatio at Thursday night’s performance that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy’’ (italics mine) — only underscores the difficulty of the feat.
That said, I wish Merrylees burrowed more deeply into Hamlet’s anguish. His prankish prince is much more convincing in his capers and his delight in toying with his enemies than he is in his moments of inner torment, such as the “To be or not to be?’’ soliloquy, delivered by Merrylees while standing barefoot on a chair. Brown, by contrast, fully inhabits the title character of “Saint Joan,’’ stepping confidently beyond the large shadow of Andrus Nichols, who memorably played the title figure when Bedlam’s “Saint Joan’’ was presented in 2015 by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater.
While capturing Joan’s spiritual fervor (she believes she is carrying out God’s will, saying she saw visions of saints who instructed her to help drive the British out of France), Brown also conveys the steely determination that enables Joan, initially dismissed as a mere “country girl,’’ to inspire military victories and make good on her early promise: “I will deliver you from fear.’’ But Brown also cracks the heart with her wrenching portrait of Joan at the moment when she cannot deliver herself from fear as, alone and abandoned and bewildered, she is subjected to a trial by religious inquisitors that will end with her being burned at the stake.
Bedlam favors a minimalist aesthetic, with few props and the cast mainly garbed in everyday attire rather than period costumes. The space at Central Square Theater was better suited to the freewheeling intimacy of the company’s approach than is the proscenium stage of the Cutler Majestic, but director Tucker finds ways to make both productions feel at least somewhat immersive. He keeps his actors moving up and down the aisles, allows audience members to sit onstage for certain acts in both “Hamlet’’ and “Saint Joan,’’ and makes strategic use of darkness in both plays.
Tucker also indulges a spirit of mischief. During one scene in “Hamlet,’’ an actor seems to nod off, then suddenly comes to and cries: “Into the fire with the witch!’’ Another cast member leans over and corrects him: “ ‘Hamlet.’ ’’ A similarly goofy interlude in “Saint Joan,’’ complete with an allusion to Mufasa from “The Lion King,’’ is less successful.
What strikes you most forcefully in both “Hamlet’’ and “Saint Joan,’’ though, is Bedlam’s fidelity to the text. For all the physical energy they bring to the plays, this is a company that cares about the meaning of the words they say, and possesses the skill to impart that meaning to the rest of us in ways we won’t soon forget. Who knows how actors do what they do, but how lucky for us that they do it.
Play by George Bernard Shaw
Play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Eric Tucker. Productions by Bedlam. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through March 25. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin