By Eugene Paul
If you haven’t heard of Howard Barker, the playwright of Gertrude: The Cry, don’t worry yourself; millions in Great Britain, his home territory, are in the same condition of ignorance. However, if you were to mention his name in artistic circles in Europe and in North America, Howard Barker is someone to be reckoned with. In England, his own company, “The Wrestling School,” produces his plays exclusively. (They named themselves thus because it was and is a struggle to put on a Barker play.) There are many Barker plays, sixty some of them. In the U.S.A., the Potomac Theatre Project – PTP- have been producing Barker plays for twenty-seven years, along with other playwrights old and new in their annual academic summer stagings. (Their “mother” is Vermont’s Middlebury College.) There are rewards and challenges. And adjustments to be made.
In this, their eighth season in New York of repertory, PTP/NYC have devoted their considerable college and commercial resources in mounting two theater pieces which could not be more different in content and intent: this, Howard Barker’s re-examination of Hamlet’s adulterous mother, Gertrude, and in the other play, playwright David Elgar’s multi-plotted adventure, Pentecost, an art mystery as well as a war story of ravaged peoples, the political, religious, emotional forces involved. Gertrude is certainly the apparently easier focus of our attentions, though far more difficult no matter how closely you parse Barker’s intentions. Because he doesn’t give a damn about your moralizing, your civility, your commitments to community, he just wants your attention for his “Theatre of Catastrophe,” his own invention, a substitute for Tragedy.
And he gets right to it. If you remember your Hamlet, you know that Hamlet’s father is murdered by his brother, Claudius, who pours poison into his ear while he is asleep. What you have not known until now is that Barker, in his play, starkly proposes that Gertrude (Pamela J. Gray) has furiously, passionately urged her totally besotted lover, Claudius (Robert Emmet Lunney) to “Kill him! Kill him!” But not why. And once Claudius does his brother in, she whips off her clothes and demands they make love naked, standing over her husband’s corpse. Which they do. Sort of. Well, there’s just so far playwright Baker can push director Richard Romagnoli. Romagnoli splits the difference between Barker and decorum, allowing Gertrude to strip totally but keeping Claudius clad, miming an obscured penis in feverish fornication.
Since it’s early in the show – the beginning, in fact – certain untutored members of the audience titter. Romagnoli and company ride over any such uncouth nonsense and the titters die away and soon thereafter we meet a helplessly garrulous Hamlet (David Barlow) addressing us privately about his cares but somehow, these semi-soliloquies do not hold a patch on the ones we’ve grown accustomed to from Shakespeare. Barker doesn’t give a hoot. He doesn’t like Hamlet anyway, thinks he’s pusillanimous. Director Romagnoli has fardels to bear.
They multiply. Barker introduces Isola (Kathryn Kates), mother of fratricide Claudius, and, of course, his now dead sibling. She is also the grandmother to Hamlet and she doesn’t much like any of them but she’s cowed by Gertrude’s seething sexual persona which runs hot, unabated, unsatisfied by clothed Claudius, so Isola introduces young, passionate Duke of Mecklenberg (Bill Army), half Gertrude’s age, vibrant with his hots for her. Grandmother Isola also abets Hamlet’s marriage to Ragusa (Meghan Leathers) who finds it more convenient to marry a king than not. (In Barker’s version of something rotten in Denmark there is no marriage of Claudius to his sister-in-law, Gertrude.) And, let’s see, oh yes, Hamlet and Ragusa bring forth a baby Princess. Barker has dark plans for them all.
The PTP/NYC company are directed to carry on adeptly, fervently, with considerable aplomb in Mark Evanchos’ monumental setting, amid some of the best and lavish costume changes – by Danielle Nieves –ever seen Off-Broadway, including Gertrude’s, most of the time, that is. She sure does know her way around black silk stockings, on and off. Well, you may not titter but you certainly don’t yawn. And that’s a blessing. Come to think of it, Barker doesn’t much like blessings, either.
Gertrude: The Cry (performed in rotating repertory with David Edgar’s Pentecost through August 10, 2014)
PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project)
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets or information, call 800-811-4111 or http://www.PTPNYC.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission