Gertrude: The Cry and Pentecost
Until Sun Aug 10
Photograph: Stan Barouh
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Posted: Thu Jul 17 2014
Gertrude—The Cry. Atlantic Stage 2 (see Off Broadway). By Howard Barker. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. With Pamela J. Gray, Robert Emmet Lunney, Alex Draper, David Barlow. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.
Gertrude—The Cry: In brief
PTP/NYC proffers a miniseason comprising two plays in rep: Howard Barker's Gertrude—The Cry, the U.S. premiere of a Hamlet riff by one of England's most bracing playwrights; and a revival of David Edgar's Pentecost, about art in post–Iron Curtain Eastern Europe.
Gertrude—The Cry: Theater review by David Cote
How’s this for a grabby opening? A king sleeps on the ground. His brother approaches stealthily, clutching a vial of poison meant for the sleeper’s ear. The king’s wife, his brother’s lover, urges him on. As the fatal liquid trickles in, the killer tells her to strip naked, which she does, shucking off the dress like molted skin. Hoarsely, she commands, “Fuck me.” Queen and regicide rut standing over the king’s jerking, poisoned body. Well! I bet you’re sorry you brought your mother to Howard Barker’s Gertrude—The Cry.
Most of what the English playwright has to say about Hamlet is distilled in that elegant but brutal salvo: Gertrude is not some deluded matron, as usually portrayed, but an erotic dynamo seizing control of her political clout, her destiny—and her orgasms. The latter are what “The Cry” alludes to, although as the play progresses, they come to denote the screams of a woman in childbirth, or mourning the death of her child. Sex, death and freedom from stifling bourgeois morality are the principal concerns of Barker’s 2002 response to Shakespeare, presented by PTP/NYC as part of its annual summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2. (Gertrude runs in rep with David Edgar’s Pentecost.)
As usual with Barker, who has been pursuing his severe, unflinching “theatre of catastrophe” for decades, the stage poetry is muscular, acidic and cleansing. Certainly there are superficial shocks—he favors blunt Anglo-Saxonisms such as fuck, bitch and cunt—and the sexual politics are so extreme they’re practically reactionary (everyone in the drama is either a vicious libertine or a priggish eunuch). But while some passages go on a bit long, the language is always electric and scalpel-sharp, carving out the space both physical and psychic. You’d have to go back to Artaud to find such an appetite for cruelty; in Barkerworld, characters are either stretched on the rack or turning the crank. The more self-aware ones can do both.
Not exactly a lampoon of Hamlet (although it is blackly witty and quite funny at times), Gertrude instead draws loopy, weird traces over the outline of the Bard's plot. Gone is Polonius; in his stead is an unflappable manservant called Cascan (Draper, perfectly dry and precise). Hamlet (Barlow) is a smug, puritanical misogynist, which only slightly exaggerates what you’ll find in the Bard. Claudius (Lunney), however, is haunted more by his ability to pleasure Gertrude (that “cry” again) than by guilt for his fratricide. Gertrude herself, played by lean and coolly feral Pamela J. Gray (sloe-eyed and smoky-voiced) is a piece of ice sculpture whose edges draw blood. She is the piece’s central motor and mystery, a woman whose appetite and pride cause tragic consequences, who seems overwhelmed by the extent of her own sexual power and hunger. “I looked down at the ground,” she tells Claudius at one point, describing a dalliance with one of Hamlet’s friends. “I saw his stuff spill out of me it did not cling whereas with you I draw it to my depths I hoard you I am a fist Claudius a fist retaining you.” Rapture and horror are inseparable.
Obviously this language is dangerous to handle: fragmentary shards of speech, lines all capitalized, run-on sentences and non sequiturs. A lesser cast would be at sea with Barker’s spare, cutting lyricism, but director Richard Romagnoli has a superb cast of PTP/NYC veterans at his disposal. But while the acting achieves the right proportion of grotesque to deadpan, the design elements are disappointing, suggesting a higher-end college production (same as in last summer’s The Castle). PTP/NYC is the only professional American company I know so dedicated to Howard Barker. Now the company needs to find set, costume and lighting designers (I propose Marsha Ginsberg, Emily Rebholz and Jane Cox, respectively) who can give his harrowing words the visual impact they need.—Theater review by David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote