In the first scene of “Gertrude – The Cry” (a reworking of “Hamlet” focusing instead on the complex Queen Gertrude and her appetites) presented by the PTP/NYC Theater Project in their 28th season down at the Atlantic Stage II, Claudius poisons Polonius, Gertrude (Pamela J. Gray) strips naked so Claudius (Robert Emmet Lunney) can see what he’s getting for killing his brother, Gertrude shouts “Fuck me!” and they fuck over her dead husband’s body.
Welcome to the world of playwright Howard Barker, who can always be counted on for sex, violence, nudity and foul language.
Barker is smart and doesn’t offend me as a woman. Does that sound like backhanded compliment? It’s not. Along with the in-your-face theatrics, he has a great depth of feeling for Gertrude and does not punish her for exploring her sexuality. Yes, she makes mistakes, and her maternal instincts are lacking. But so many playwrights, both male and female, choose to punish their female characters for enjoying sex and then put them through a degrading set of paces.
Gertrude chooses when, where and how to have sex, and she is, for the most part, entirely in control. She remains self-possessed to the end, despite the chaos she helped create. It is a credit to the play that the immoral characters are the ones to root for, rather than the moral ones. The moral, Gertrude’s son Hamlet (David Barlow) who in this version becomes King Hamlet with absolute power, and his eventual wife Ragusa (Meghan Leathers), conclude that the best way forward is to exterminate the immoral, even if that means targeting his mother in the process.
The cast is uniformly excellent, including the loyal servant Cascan (Alex Draper) and the horny, panty-sniffing, toy-boy Duke Albert (Bill Army). Director Richard Romagnoli has squeezed every drop of humor and pathos evident in Barker’s script. It is part romp, part filth, part fun, and oddly moving. The production also looks beautiful, achieved with a stripped down set by Mark Evancho, effective lighting by Hallie Zieselman and gorgeous costumes and hats by Danielle Nieves.
Go. Be enlightened. Be entertained. Be surprised, hopefully. You certainly won’t be bored. As we left the theater, my companion said to me, “I loved it. But I don’t think it would work as a first-date night.”
That is correct.