Review: ‘Gertrude and Claudius @ Barrington Stage, 7/21/19

Elijah Alexander and Kate MacCluggage as the title characters in “Gertrude and Claudius” at Barrington Stage Company. (BSC publicity photo by Daniel Rader.)

The most theatrically engaging and emotionally complete production I’ve seen so far this summer, “Gertrude and Claudius” combines the brawn of a medieval history play with the intelligence of a contemporary revenge drama.

Commissioned by the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, where it had its world premiere last year, “Gertrude and Claudius” is receiving a rousing production at Barrington Stage Company, with which its author, Mark St. Germain, has a long artistic association. (The company’s smaller stage was named after him seven years ago.)

Essentially a prequel to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that explores the origins of the relationship between the title characters – the mother and stepfather of the moody Danish prince – “Gertrude and Claudius” was adapted by St. Germain from John Updike’s best-selling 2000 novel of the same name. According to Updike’s son David, a writer who happened to be sitting in the same row as me at Sunday’s opening performance, St. Germain was chosen by Updike’s estate from among multiple proposals to adapt the book for the stage.

St. Germain succeeds brilliantly, crafting language that synthesizes the formality and eloquence of Shakespeare with a modern, accessible vernacular. At one point, a character says, “I got away with it!,” an exclamation rather more contemporary than anything from pre-Renaissance Denmark or Elizabethan England but which sounds perfectly right here, in a production directed by the finesse and acuity we’ve come to expect from BSC’s artistic director, Julianne Boyd.

Covering about 30 years, “Gertrude and Claudius” begins with the arranged marriage of Gertrude to Hamlet’s father, King Amleth. It continues over the decades while the king, a generally caring and considerate husband distracted by affairs of state, misses the affair of the heart between his wife and his world-traveling brother, Claudius. The unfulfilled lovers see one another occasionally, building their bond primarily through letters, until Gertrude asserts her royal prerogative and essentially orders Claudius to return, starting them toward regicide and the beginning of the story in “Hamlet.”

Performed on a handsome, imposing set of high castle walls, designed by Lee Savage and lit to perfection by David Lander, with gorgeous costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, BSC’s “Gertrude and Claudius” has an outstanding title pair in Kate MacCluggage and Elijah Alexander. Both acutely aware of the constraints of the era and the weight of their respective places in the royal family, they nonetheless build a deeply affecting connection. Claudius wanders the globe because the only thing harder than being away from Gertrude would be to see her daily; she is a proper, strong queen, wife and mother, but, her mind often far away, she also comes to consider Elsinore as much prison as castle, haunting its hallways as her husband’s ghost will after his murder.

With an excellent Douglas Rees as Amleth, guilty of little more than neglect on the domestic front, Berkshires veteran Rocco Sisto as the chattering royal adviser Polonius, reliable and comedic Mary Stout as Gertrude’s matronly handmaiden and Nick LaMedica as vital though largely silent Hamlet, the production moves toward its inevitable end. Though the conclusion is foregone, the journey there is not, and some of its stops offer surprise and insight. The best of them is a scene that closes the first act, when Claudius introduces Gertrude to his trained falcons. (The puppetry is by Brandon Hardy, who also worked on BSC’s season-opening “Into the woods.”)

Rich in metaphor and emotion, the falcon scene ends with a moment of theatrical magic that it would be unfair to reveal further. St. Germain is said to have been pacing at the back of the balcony, agonizing that the essential moment would work as intended. It does. Gertrude and Claudius together make an irrevocable choice, forever altering lives and history.

Review by Steve Barnes from the Times Union. Link to the full article can be found here.

THE HELLO GIRLS Nominated for 4 Outer Critics Circle Awards this Season !

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical
The Beast in the Jungle
Black Light
Girl from the North Country
The Hello Girls
Midnight at the Never Get

Outstanding Book Of A Musical (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Robert Horn, Tootsie
Conor McPherson, Girl from the North Country
Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, The Hello Girls
Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown
Jeff Whitty and James Magruder, Head Over Heels

Outstanding New Score (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, The Prom
Joe Iconis, Be More Chill
Peter Mills, The Hello Girls
Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown
David Yazbek, Tootsie

Outstanding Director Of A Musical
Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown
Scott Ellis, Tootsie
Daniel Fish, Oklahoma!
Joel Grey, Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish)
Cara Reichel, The Hello Girls

Read the full list from Playbill.com here.

Jay-Z and Kanye set the tone in premiere of ‘Les Deux Noirs’ at Mosaic Theater


James J. Johnson, left, as Richard Wright, and Jeremy Hunter as James Baldwin in Psalmayene 24’s “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son,” at Mosaic Theater Company. (Stan Barouh)

The Richard Wright-James Baldwin showdown “Les Deux Noirs” briefly becomes “Les Quatre” in the frisky, flippant new show at Mosaic Theater. Wright takes on a Jay-Z persona and Baldwin is Kanye West as the Jay-Z/Kanye West song “Niggas in Paris” gets the music video treatment, complete with choreography and projections. No telling where playwright Psalmayene 24 might swerve after that irreverent, heady start to his 70-minute power play between mid-20th-century titans of black American culture.

You can’t say Psalmayene 24 is jumping on the hip-hop bandwagon of “Hamilton”; he’s been doing this for at least 20 years, since he performed his “The Hip-Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown” at Arena Stage. The new drama’s full title is “Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son,” and it’s based on a 1953 meeting in Paris between Wright and Baldwin. The beef was the upstart Baldwin’s critique of Wright’s 1940 novel, “Native Son,” a groundbreaking book that’s still troubling in its representation of Bigger Thomas’s violent reaction to an oppressive society.


The show is a fantasia that isn’t entirely sure of itself yet. Sexuality rears its head — Baldwin was gay, Wright married two white women — and in that complicated key, RJ Pavel and Musa Gurnis are terrific as the solicitous maitre d’ and waitress (both white) with creamy French accents and lusty eyes. The chats and the action never feel remote — lessons on the n-word, a great joke about reparations — even if the show is still seeking the thread that will pull it all tight.

Les Deux Noirs: Notes on Notes of a Native Son, by Psalmayene 24. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Set, Ethan Sinnott; lights, William K. D’Eugenio; costumes, Amy MacDonald; projections, Brandi Martin; sound, Nick Hernandez; choreography, Tiffany Quinn. About 70 minutes. Through April 27 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $20-$65. 202-399-7993. mosaictheater.org.

Read the full review by Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post here.

Playhouse in the Park review: ‘Last Wide Open,’ by Audrey Cefaly, is Hard to Describe but Easy to Experience

Lina (Kimberly Gilbert) and Roberto (Marcus Kyd) star in the Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere production of “The Last Wide Open,” written by Audrey Cefaly. The show runs in the Shelterhouse Theatre through March 10.
Lina (Kimberly Gilbert) and Roberto (Marcus Kyd) star in the Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere production of “The Last Wide Open,” written by Audrey Cefaly. The show runs in the Shelterhouse Theatre through March 10. (Photo11: Provided photo, Mikki Schaffner)?

There is something wonderfully effortless about “The Last Wide Open,” which had its world premiere at the Playhouse in the Park Thursday evening.

That’s not a very compelling description, I know. But it’s a compliment. You see, Audrey Cefaly’s play defies all those laws of time and logic that we grew up with. It’s a play that should, by all rights, be utterly confusing. And, I suppose, if you’re one of those people who insists on grasping every last shred of reason out of a script, it still can be.

But why would you go to the theater and battle the playwright? This is the person you’ve asked to take you on a journey. Give in. Trust your playwright. Give yourself a chance to be enriched by the ride. And what an enchanting ride Cefaly and her cast – and director Blake Robison – take us on.

It all takes place in a small Italian restaurant called Frankie’s. There are just two characters; Lina and Roberto. He’s an Italian immigrant, while she is someone always wanting something she doesn’t have. That has the makings of a story. But Cefaly isn’t content with that. She’s leading us into an adventure.

Lina (Kimberly Gilbert) and Roberto (Marcus Kyd) are seen in the Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere production of Audrey Cefaly’s “The Last Wide Open,” which runs through March 10 in the Shelterhouse Theatre.
Lina (Kimberly Gilbert) and Roberto (Marcus Kyd) are seen in the Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere production of Audrey Cefaly’s “The Last Wide Open,” which runs through March 10 in the Shelterhouse Theatre. (Photo11: Provided photo, Mikki Schaffner)

“The Last Wide Open,” you see, is more than a love story. It is three variations on the same story. All three take place on the same day in the same place. What does that mean, exactly? Well, in the first section of the play, Roberto has spent five years as a dishwasher at Frankie’s. In the second, he’s still the same man, but he is a teacher who is helping out at his uncle’s restaurant – Frankie’s. In the third, he is a bus boy who has only just arrived in America. We meet three different faces of Lina, too; as an impatient, directionless server, a nurse and finally, a part-time server who is a week away from being married.

Confused? Probably, because this sounds much more complicated on paper than when it is played out in front of us. Cefaly has created characters who are, in many ways, just like the rest of us. Sure, there are actorly demands. But Lina and Roberto are people coping with anxiety, longing, uncertainty and the greatest burden of all, trying to find meaning in the humdrum of everyday life.

Is there sadness? Definitely. And apprehension and anger, too. And love? We hope there will be, because by the time we’re a few minutes into the play, we really like these characters. A lot. Kimberly Gilbert (Lina) is a bundle of . . . well, I was going to say “nerves.” That’s true. But there is so much more. Not only does she feel immobilized by the pressures of life, but she is also in a constant dither. Her greatest pride, it seems, is in the precision with which she mops the restaurant floor. And as Roberto, Marcus Kyd seems unflappable, no matter how muddled and chaotic the situation around him. Perhaps he has learned that, as a man with only a rough understanding of English, the safest way to proceed is to smile a lot. And nod occasionally. And be charming. 

Lina (Kimberly Gilbert, L) is seen here Debra Hildebrand, the properties running crew chief of the Playhouse in the Park’s Shelterhouse Theatre. Gilbert is one of the two actors in the world premiere production of Audrey Cefaly’s “The Last Wide Open.” While Hildebrand isn’t formally a cast member, she repeatedly steps in and out of the action of the play, which runs through March 10.
Lina (Kimberly Gilbert, L) is seen here Debra Hildebrand, the properties running crew chief of the Playhouse in the Park’s Shelterhouse Theatre. Gilbert is one of the two actors in the world premiere production of Audrey Cefaly’s “The Last Wide Open.” While Hildebrand isn’t formally a cast member, she repeatedly steps in and out of the action of the play, which runs through March 10. (Photo11: Provided photo, Mikki Schaffner.)

Oh – there is one more person on the stage, as well. Debra Hildebrand is the chief of the theater’s properties running crew. She’s the one in charge of making sure all that “stuff” on the stage is in the right place at the right time. Usually, the role would have her hidden backstage. But Cefaly wants everyone to be a part of the mix. So Hildebrand wanders in and out at significant moments, moving errant forks or handing the actors musical instruments – just being there when she’s needed. And she has a lovely presence, like a favorite aunt wafting in and out of the room.

There are a handful of songs, too. Written by Matthew M. Nielson, they’re not big musical numbers. They’re more like musical ruminations, except that they’re funnier and more clever than that description makes them sound. 

“The Last Wide Open” is much harder to describe than it is to experience. Remember, it’s “effortless,” even in its unusual dramatic format. Should it be three separate plays? Played by separate actors? Who knows? That’s up to Cefaly. And the world she chooses to wrap us all up in is one that manages to be mystical and real. And charming. As I mentioned earlier, trust her. And trust her writing. And while you’re at it, trust her characters, too, no matter where they take us.

Read the full review from the Cincinnati.com here.

Playing on Air Podcast Featuring RULES OF COMEDY by Patricia Cotter

Caroline can’t find anything funny — not her awkward love life, not her jaded standup coach Guy, and definitely not the punchlines she’s been reading in 101 Dirty Jokes. 

Originally produced at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Patricia Cotter‘s RULES OF COMEDY is a playful, wry look at the lives of comedians when they dare to go offstage and off script. Directed by Jonathan Bernstein, Cotter’s short comedy stars Louisa Krause (The Flick, Billions, PoA’s Winter Gamesand Michael Esper (Trust, The Last Ship, PoA’s Anniversary). After the play, stay tuned for an artist interview about the playwright’s background in comedy, avoiding the pull towards bitterness, and toeing the line with your material.

“Cotter’s script is lush with the knowledge of standup comedy… this play is a scream” – Todd Zeigler, Broadway World Reviews

More about Playing on Air here.