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Gertrude: The Cry

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

David Barlow and Pamela J. Gray.
Photo by Stan Barouh.
Gertrude —The Cry, Howard Barker's 2002 cerebral/visceral take on Shakespeare's Hamlet, opens with an eye-searing bang—in both the metaphoric and the colloquially crude meaning of the term—in the Potomac Theatre Project's heady production at Atlantic Stage 2.

At its center of it all is Gertrude, Hamlet's mother (Pamela J. Gray, giving a truly—if I may mix genders here—ballsy performance), complicit in the murder of her husband (among others), lover of her brother-in-law (among others), and gifted with a siren's allure as well as a siren's song, that "cry" of sexual ecstasy to which the title refers. It's enough to make Lady Macbeth blush.

Barker, who calls his playwriting style "theatre of catastrophe," is terribly interested in the juxtaposition of violence, death, and the lust for power—all of which are on ample display here. The plot is secondary to the psychological probing of characters set free of the superego, where powerful people give free rein to their desires.

Although we are in absurdist territory here, Barker wisely has given us many of the familiar markers from Hamlet to latch onto, even where he changes names or adds new characters. Thus we have Isola (Kathryn Kates), mother of Claudius and of the late Hamlet Sr., intermittently ingratiating and sarcastic, and always self-serving; and Cascan (Alex Draper), Gertrude's highly efficient and manipulative go-to servant. (Kates and Draper give spot on performances, both part of and commenting on the action).

Above all, Barker is a wordsmith, especially when it comes to using words as knives, such as when Hamlet seeks his mother's blessing to marry Ragusa (Meghan Leathers), a more worldly version of Ophelia. He kneels before Gertrude and asks her to "bless me with your poisonous kiss." Later, when he is informed that Mom has given birth to (presumably) Claudius's daughter and that the child has a lovely smile, he remarks: "Who would not have smiled to escape the fetid dungeon of my mother's womb?" These are lines that Shakespeare himself would have been proud to have written. No one takes offense from the sometimes gaspingly offensive remarks; they all know the rules of the game and play it to the hilt.

With a meandering plot and minimal set design (though with some terrific costumes by Danielle Nieves, especially for the title character), the production of Gertrude —The Cry, running two hours and twenty minutes, must rely on strong performances and solid directing. Thankfully all come through with flying colors: director Richard Romagnoli and the entire cast, which includes in addition to those previously named Robert Emmet Lunney as the love/lust-sick Claudius; David Barlow as Hamlet (who wouldn't be mentally unbalanced in this family?); and Bill Army, as Hamlet's companion (a little bit Horatio, a little bit Fortinbras) and another fly caught in Gertrude's web.

The playwright and the Potomac Theatre Project have given us a lot to digest, not all of it palatable yet all of it nonetheless fascinating, sort of like observing the scene of an accident. If you do go, however, be sure to leave the kids at home!

Potomac Theatre Project, in association with Middlebury College, presents
Gertrude: The Cry
Through August 10
The Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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