With 'Gertrude & Claudius,' Barrington Stage Company delivers a love story unlike any other

Elijah Alexander Is Claudius and Kate MacCluggage Is Gertrude in Barrington Stage Company's production of Mark St. Germain's "Gertrude and Claudius," opening Sunday afternoon at BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, where it is now in previews.

PITTSFIELD — Based on a novel by John Updike, Mark St. Germain's "Gertrude and Claudius" was commissioned by Orlando Shakespeare Theatre in 2016. It took three years and a grant from the Edgerton Foundation for the play to have its world premiere earlier this year in Orlando, Fla., in a production that ran from late February to late March.

"The rights were held up. Updike's son, David, was helpful in getting the rights released," St. Germain said, explaining the delay, during a recent pre-rehearsal interview in a conference room at Barrington Stage Company's Wolfson Center on North Street, where he was joined by BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd and Elijah Alexander and Kate MacCluggage who are playing the title couple in the Boyd-directed production of "Gertrude and Claudius" which, after previews that begin tonight, officially opens Sunday afternoon at BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, where it is scheduled to run through Aug. 3.

Anyone who has seen or read William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" knows Claudius as the villain of the piece — the man who murders his brother, the King of Denmark; usurps the throne and marries his sister-in-law, Gertrude, Hamlet's mother.

The relationship between Claudius and Gertrude has always been somewhat problematic; viewed through a prism of power, authority and entitlement. But what emerges in this prequel to "Hamlet" is something else; something Boyd acknowledges she didn't quite expect to find when she picked up the novel. "Updike came out with a love story," Boyd said, "and Mark's play gives us a basis for what we see in 'Hamlet.'"

The relationship between Claudius and Gertrude begins innocently enough but moves into a torrid relationship that is entangled with politics, power and a troublesome son-nephew-stepson.

"I see Claudius through the lens of jealousy and ambition," Alexander said, sipping from a bottle of water. "For me, Mark has given us a strong, dramatic play about relationships, especially between parent and child with overshadowing figures; people who want to be king and those who don't."

Claudius and his brother, who also was named Hamlet, were raised by a strong father who, Alexander said, had certain expectations of both his sons. In addition, the two brothers had expectations of each other. Claudius feels he is better equipped to handle the powers of a king, Alexander said.

In a sense, Gertrude emerges from the shadows in "Gertrude and Claudius." It is no accident that her name is first in the title.

"We've seen all these women (in Shakespeare's plays) through the men in their lives," MacCluggage said. "In this play, we have a woman we all think we know but whom we see only in one moment of time. Here she moves from (age) 17 to 47. That's a whole life. We see a woman who is beginning to ask 'What do I want for my life?'"

She has become a wife by arrangement.

"If you make a marriage coldly and for practical purposes," MacCluggage said, "you run the risk of being starved for connection." Her answer is Claudius.

Connection is the key, Boyd, St. Germain, Alexander and MacCluggage agree; connection and validation — between parents and children; lovers and spouses.

"I think if Hamlet had not been born, Gertrude still would not have had a happy life," said St. Germain.

"The relationship between Gertrude and her son is beautifully drawn" Alexander said. "Claudius is a childless man, wanting to be a father."

"The stakes are high here," Boyd said. "Gertrude and Claudius are willing to risk all for sex and love."

"I think one of the questions Mark raises in the play is 'What is love? Is it just how people feel?'" MacCluggage said.

For Alexander, it's more than sex and love. Claudius' relationship with Gertrude begins as friendship, coy flirtation, before it transforms into something considerably more.

"There is something Gertrude sets in motion," Alexander said; "something he sees in her. She's the catalyst. The attraction between them is more than sexual. There is an affinity; a mind connection."