It can be tempting to daydream about an innovative theater director plotting out the concept for his next project, listing themes on a whiteboard and carefully working out ways to achieve his creative goals. But simple logistics, and the realities of an often-pitiless business, more frequently prove the mother of theatrical invention.
Take the first production by Bedlam, an upstart New York City theater company that launched in 2012. It rendered George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” with a cast of four: Andrus Nichols as Joan of Arc, with the other three members of the ensemble accounting for 23 characters. (The troupe adopted a similar approach in its second production, “Hamlet.)
Audiences and critics found that the aggressively stripped-down casting enhanced the clarity of each of these dense, wordy plays, and injected an uncommon energy to the stage. Helped by enthusiastic word-of-mouth and rhapsodic reviews in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others — even Time magazine put this “Saint Joan” on its Top 10 list of best plays of 2013 — the shows were hits.
But when asked about his concept behind the staging, Bedlam artistic director Eric Tucker, who has also directed each of the company’s shows thus far, offers a very grounded explanation.
“When you’re starting a company and you don’t have a lot of money, it’s just less people to pay,” Tucker says, on the phone from Cambridge, where he was readying “Saint Joan” for the run presented by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater that began performances Thursday and continues until Feb. 8.
That may be the case, but it also jibes with Tucker’s penchant for stripped-down shows that rely on the strength of the material, in concert with the audience’s imagination, to tell a story clearly. “When you know a play pretty well and you come in and see four actors do it,” he says, “you’re going to hear the text differently. I think anything we can do to make people really hear it is a good thing.” He’d previously configured the Shaw play for merely three actors for a production in Los Angeles, and saw Bedlam’s inaugural efforts as worthy challenges that, if pulled off, might help make a name for the company.
“There are new companies in New York City every day — several, even. So how do you pull away from the pack and get noticed, so that you can raise more money and continue to work? I thought that if we did something really hard, and did it really well, that would get attention. And people would love the shows.”
“Saint Joan” is a 1924 play about Joan of Arc, who as a teenager emerged from obscurity in the French countryside to lead its armies in a successful campaign against the invading English in the 15th century. Her insistence that she was a soldier for God, receiving direct instructions from angels and saints, added to her mystique but also led to accusations of sorcery and her eventual execution. She was canonized as a saint in 1920. In his preface to the play, Shaw writes that contemporaries of Joan could only see her as either “miraculous” or “unbearable.”
“Both are true. I think what’s so brilliant about Shaw’s play is that he lets her be seen as both of those things,” says Nichols, who plays Joan. (Tucker, Tom O’Keefe, and Edmund Lewis round out the cast.) “I don’t think she ever thought of herself as a saint. Playing the role, you can’t be afraid to let her be a real pain sometimes. I think she just knows what needs to be done. She knows what she wants.”
In his review of Bedlam’s follow-up productions, same-cast readings of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel “Sense and Sensibility,” Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote of Nichols that he’s “beginning to think [she] can do anything.”
As in its New York stagings, audience members will be asked to move around a bit during performances of “Saint Joan.” The playing space (and seating arrangement) is reconfigured for the second act, which begins out in the lobby, and the audience is brought onstage for the third.
Administratively, Bedlam consists of just Tucker and Nichols, the company’s producing director, though a growing circle of actors have already worked in multiple productions. While in town, the group has been rehearsing the pair of plays it plans to present this spring. Nichols says the by-now-familiar aesthetic of the troupe’s productions make for a particularly intimate audience experience.
“We do it essentially with two chairs and in jeans, and with a very small handful of props. The staging and the set and all of that really puts the impetus on the imagination of the audience, which of course can create way better special effects than we can on the kind of budget we operate on. And it also makes us all partners in the trip of it.”