Gertrude and Claudius
By Mark St. Germain
Based on novel by John Updike
Directed by Jim Helsinger
Starring Gene Gillette, Paige Lindsey White and Kenny Babble
Much as you try not to think about it, Mom and dad DID do the horizontal nasty at least once. And that’s true for Hamlet, Shakespeare’s favorite unfortunate son. I have always assumed the Claudius (Gillette) and Gertrude (White) union was a rapey construct to legitimize the throne, but here the pair are star-crossed lovers driven by lust and the realpolitik of the 1500’s. Claudius brother Amleth (Babel) inherits a fragile kingdom, and his marriage to Gertrude produces a single foppish child uninterested in politics. After more than a few years of post-post graduate party work, Hamlet is summoned home, just in time to find his daddy dead and Mommy otherwise engaged. He’s not a bad kid, just one too dangerous to keep around. Act two does not bode well for him.
It’s a well-balanced cast on this elegant stage. Babble’s father figure has the bully directness and figures a good fight can resolve every quarrel, no matter how esoteric. Claudius works much more subtly, he’s piled up battle skills dancing with the Catholics and Italians, and he runs rings around these brutish Danes. Hamlet (Junior Nyong’o) drops in briefly; mostly he gets few lines and one really cool stage dive. White’s femme fatale mother is the dreamer, she wants a fairy tale romance and ends up a brood hen unable to keep up the production line. Yorick (Terrance Lee) drops by; he’s more a chattering clown than a plot point, but he gets in some good physical jokes. Claudius behaves like a trained ninja Lothario; his time in Italy was well used, and he moves in with no real resistance. He wraps Polonius (Dan Kremer) around his dagger, and you’re actually glad Elsinore did not end up with Hamlet and Ophelia(Susan Maris) in charge.
Author John Updike write in a cadence and vocabulary much more amenable to modern ears than Mr. Shakespeare. While the occasion “forsooth” and “gadzooks” sallies forth, the vocabulary and cadence are decidedly 20th century. And the motivations are much clearer, we are not bound by centuries old social norms and politics, thus freeing us to focus on the motivations and results of infidelity. All the Orlando Shakes stage ticks play out here. Trap doors, rotating stages, local weather and clever lights make this show technically top notch. Kudos to the design team for the horseback riding scene, no one has to sweep up bad critical reviews when it’s over. Not sure about sitting through two hours of obsolete words? Not here, and best of all its a romance that doesn’t feel contrived.