Paramount a summer lab for Bedlam

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COVER STORY | By Jim Lowe

Paramount Theatre audiences will have the opportunity to share the creative process with a New York City experimental off-Broadway theater company. As Bedlam culminates its second Vermont residency, it will present its progress with a classic, and an anticipated world premiere.

“While we’re creating these projects, or creating a play in the rehearsal room, the first priority is always the audience — how we’re going to deal with the audience, how close we are to them, the way they’re going to see the play,” Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s artistic director, explained of the company’s unique approach.

Bedlam will present, in their current status, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” at 8 p.m. Aug. 13, and Steven Sater’s “New York Animals” at 8 p.m. Aug. 14. Seating, as well as the action, will be on the Paramount stage.

“It is a great, great treat to have 25 days with Bedlam in Vermont, as they are some of the most creative and generous-hearted people it has been my pleasure to have known,” said the Paramount’s Executive Director, Bruce Bouchard, himself a veteran of the New York stage. “It is my hope that Vermont will become their second artistic home for years to come.”

Bedlam’s first New York season was a theatrical couplet, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Shaw’s “St. Joan,” both performed by the same four actors.

Ben Brantley, in The New York Times, wrote, “The troupe calls itself Bedlam, which gives you some idea of its ferocious energy, but none at all of its clarity, precision and blissful good sense.”

“We like to do things where the audience is very, very close to us,” Tucker said. “And it’s about a simple kind of storytelling, that very bare-bones style where we try to use only the things we absolutely need.”

The company’s second season was again two plays in repertory, a new adaptation of Chekov’s “The Seagull” — which was shared with a Paramount audience last summer — and Jane Austen’s “Sense And Sensibility” adapted by company member Kate Hamill. Both were again played by the same cast, this time 10 actors.

This year, thanks to a donation of housing and rehearsal space from the Killington Ski Resort, Bedlam began rehearsing in Vermont for three and a half weeks before the presentations at the Paramount. After 15 days in Killington they moved to Middletown Springs for an additional 10 days.

“Pygmalion,” best known as the basis for the Lerner and Loewe musical and film “My Fair Lady,” will have what Tucker calls an “investigation.” Bedlam has been invited to bring a production to the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., for its 2016-17 season. This residency is the company’s first developmental work on the play.

“The first time we read it, there’s a kind of trap we fell into, kind of making it very quaint and polite,” Tucker said in a phone interview. “But there’s some really dark stuff in it — when Eliza talks about how she’s been hit before; when Doolittle’s there, he talks about giving her the strap.

“There’s a lot of that,” Tucker said. “And Higgins is really harsh with people — his relationship with Mrs. Pierce, the way he treats Eliza.

“For us, it’s been about uncovering the grit of that story, if that’s the word for it,” Tucker said. “When we did ‘St. Joan,’ our first show as a company, we found it was funny — but there’s a lot of darkness and pathos. And that’s true of ‘Pygmalion.’”

In Vermont, the actors began with “table work,” reading and discussing the work. But they have moved on.

“For me, at this point, I like repeating it, not talking too much,” Tucker said, “because I feel the actors themselves adjust.”

At this point, the actors aren’t worrying about accents, which are complicated and they have no dialect coach here.

“We’re not setting too many rules,” Tucker said. “We’re just going in there and making choices, and trying to see what sticks.”

“New York Animals” is currently set in 1992.

“That’s still being explored,” Tucker said. “The writer’s done versions of it that are set in absolute present, but there’s something about having it in the early ’90s that we like.”

There are 21 or 22 characters played by four or five actors, and it takes place in one rainy day in New York.

“None of these characters know each other, but somehow the lives intersect — and you see how people’s lives intersect in the course of one day, and how they affect each other just in small ways,” Tucker said.

Sater, the lyricist for “Spring Awakening,” wrote this as a play, but he is developing songs for it with composer Burt Bacharach.

“He wondered what it would be like to sprinkle some of these songs in, so we are trying to figure out where we might put these songs and who sings them,” Tucker said. “In Vermont, we’re mainly working on the scenes.”

Pigeonholing “New York Animals” is difficult.

“It doesn’t necessarily fit neatly as a comedy; it’s also not necessarily a drama. It’s very funny, yet it has a lot of heart to it,” Tucker said. “It’s sort of a slice of everyday life — from a lot of different perspectives. And it’s very New York.”

Tucker warns that next week’s presentations will hardly be formal performances.

“Thursday night, we’ll do a presentation of ‘Pygmalion.’ It’ll look like a rehearsal,” he said. “With ‘New York Animals’ Friday, that’ll be a much further along.”

Paramount Theatre
Paramount Theatre’s 30 Center Stage presents Bedlam in two theater works in development at 30 Center St., Rutland: 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”; and at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14, Steven Sater’s “New York Animals.” Tickets are $15 each (open on-stage seating); call 802-775-0903, or go online to www.paramountlive.org.

Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor for the Rutland Herald and The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
E-MAILjim.lowe@rutlandherald.com