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GERTRUDE AND CLAUDIUS – Barrington Stage Company

It’s ambitious for any playwright to adapt for the stage a novel by one of the best authors of modern times, with that novel, in turn, based on one of the greatest tragedies by the greatest playwright of all time. That’s the challenge that accomplished playwright Mark St. Germain (“Camping with Henry and Tom”, “ Freud’s Last Session” best known to Berkshire audiences) faces in adapting John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius”, a prequel to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

In the program’s notes, St. Germain pinpoints the goal: “What works on the page needs to take on its own vivid life on the stage”. Does it? Despite the play’s intelligence, erudition and beautifully crafted language, sadly, not so much.

Act 1 makes plain Gertrude really doesn’t want to wed King Amleth in a marriage arranged by her father King Rorick; she’s independent-minded, and if she marries, even observing the expedience of royal lineage, it should be for a love that is true and on her terms. That lays down Gertrude’s mentality well enough, but let’s cut to the chase. When she meets her brother-in-law Claudius on her wedding day – given how well we know her tragic fate in“Hamlet” - if sparks don’t fly, at least the mood should tense-up. Neither does. When the chemistry isn’t palpable in the leading players and the action isn’t portentous , we’re not off to good start.

The script tracks the brother- and sister-in law relationship that gestates, ever so slowly, over thirty years while Claudius is off plundering in the Mediterranean with a series of letters that begin with (I’m paraphrasing) “I’m sending along a rattle for my nephew Hamlet”. Such correspondence might work in the novel where the subconscious thrives but having the leads sit on benches stage left, stage right and read isn’t theatrical. Act I proceeds along at a choppy saunter, scene to scene to scene. Within scenes the measured pacing gets bogged down; an extended episode using falconry as an allegory for Gertrude’s marriage predicament gets overloaded with words. Symbolism, which is inherently theatrical, can speak for itself.

Act 2 perks up thanks to a balls-to-the-wall performance by Douglas Rees as King Amleth, Hamlet’s father, who accuses his brother of carrying-on with Gertrude. Later, he confronts Gertrude with the affair. There’s more passion in King Amleth’s hateful rage at Claudius and forgiving loathing of Gertrude than the lovers muster when they finally bed. That scene is as choreographed as it is chaste. Solemnity prevails everywhere in this Elsinore even in the bedroom.

Despite the missing drama, Kate MacCluggage as Gertrude navigates her part marvelously, forging a portrait of a woman more intelligent than the court, denied her self-determination. Elijah Alexander’s Claudius just doesn’t summon the conniving charm, the braggadocio, the machismo under which percolates evil, or at least enough to kill a brother.

The fixed, all-purpose set, a Medieval castle greatroom of stone, is familiar yet handsome. The lighting scheme is romantic and familiar, too. The heavily textured, Renaissance-period costumes are splendid and command attention. When the prequel finally melds into the beginning of “Hamlet” itself, Claudius boasts “I got away with it”. I got the irony intended, but all I could think of was Trump.

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