PITTSFIELD — Gertrude does not appear until the latter portion of John Updike's novel "Gertrude and Claudius." In his stage adaptation, playwright Mark St. Germain cuts to the chase. Gertrude appears right from the get-go with a blast of radiance and determination and assertion that, in the hands of the astonishing Kate MacCluggage brings to Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage sustainable assertion and uncommon richness. Indeed, it is much to the production's and the play's credit that MacCluggage is given as much stage time as she is given. There is hardly a scene in which she is not present and the play, the production and the audience are all the better for it.
St. Germain has stripped to its essential core a lumbering, thickly applied novel that serves as a prequel to William Shakespeare's"Hamlet," beginning a few generations before Gertrude is born.
Gertrude is the daughter of King Rorik (Greg Thornton), who has arranged for her to marry Amleth (Douglas Rees), a war hero with whom an alliance by marriage would help secure Denmark's alliances.
"Amleth has proven himself as worthy an heir to his father as his brother [Claudius] has proven himself worthless," Rorik tells Gertrude.
For his part, Amleth pursues Gertrude in his own manner, assuring his loyalty to her in love, compassion and consideration.
"Time will challenge us to learn more," he says at one point. "You will learn to be a Queen and I a King. We can learn, but not alone, only together. I am an honest man, hard to those that defy me but tender with those that profess fealty," Rees' Amlet says to her, outlining the blueprint for Rees' smart, nuanced portrayal of a king, a man, who, over the decades in which "Gertrude and Claudius" unfolds, will have some hard lessons to learn.
The lessons will be just as difficult for Gertrude once she becomes a mother, to Hamlet (Nick LaMedica), who, over the 20-plus years he ages during the play, proves to be dangerously moody and brooding; every bit the melancholy Dane. And, over time, Gertrude grows distant from Amleth and finds herself increasingly attracted to her brother-in-law, Claudius (Elijah Alexander). At great risk, what begins as friendship — carried out chiefly through exchanges of letters between Gertrude in Elsinore and Claudius on his exotic travels — turns to love; love turns to betrayal; betrayal turns to the murder of Amleth at the hands of Claudius, unbeknownst to Gertrude. It is not giving anything away to say that "Gertrude and Claudius" ends where "Hamlet" begins — with the ghost of Hamlet's father revealing to the young prince the truth about his death.
MacCluggage's Gertrude certainly is a woman worth prizing. She is smart, resourceful, outspoken, a woman in possession of her intellect and sexuality; straining for freedom against the constraints of expectations placed on her by Amleth, the court, the kingdom. She shares with Amleth a profound unease over Hamlet's temperament and is confused and uncertain over how best to deal with him. She respects Amleth but does not love him. Claudius fills those spaces in her life that Amleth is unable to occupy despite his best, most sincere efforts. Rees has a keen sense of Amleth's own unmet needs as he navigates his responsibilities as ruler, father, and husband to a woman who can barely meet him halfway. It is telling, I think, that the most dramatic and emotionally meaningful scenes here are those between Gertrude and Amleth; scenes that chart the development of a complicated relationship with nuance and understanding.
The odd irony in director Julianne Boyd's production is the imbalance in the relationship between MacCluggage's Gertrude and Alexander's oddly constructed Claudius, who, in Alexander's hands, seems the perfect embodiment of Rorik's assessment of him as a man who has "no interest in leadership, and less in following his brother's."
"He sins against expectation," Gertrude replies, touching on one of the play's key thematic strands.
Alexander plays Claudius with a cavalier insouciance; a casual by-the-numbers approach that offers words without authenticity. He and MacCluggage are at their best together in a series of scenes involving their correspondence. There's a playful chemistry that should percolate once they are in each other's company but doesn't quite. There's a kind of swaggerish demeanor in Alexander's Claudius that often feels more in tune with "Shrew's" Petruchio, a role Alexander has played. As a result, it's often difficult to know just what to make of this Claudius. When, near the end, a big grin spreads across his face as he pauses to boast "And I got away with it," he sounds more like a Renaissance Dennis the Menace boastfully acknowledging his success in having accomplished some mischievous deed without having been caught. Updike and St. Germain leave the true consequences ti Shakespeare.
Mary Stout's Herda, Gertrude's maid, is something of a cliche. The skillful Rocco Sisto offers a Polonius who is, in the early going, a voice of thought and reason and, in the later going, Shakespeare's old fool.
Still, MacCluggage delivers a knockout performance as a woman trying to assert her place in a time that clearly is not designed for her. This has been quite a summer for outstanding work by female actors. Add MacCluggage to the roster.