“People should take Gertrude seriously,” declares the queen, speaking of herself in the third person. Howard Barker’s 2002 rendering of Hamlet defends the title character (Hamlet’s mother), by rethinking her tongue-tied collusion in her husband’s murder. In Barker’s abstract version, that perfidious deed — which spurs Shakespeare’s Hamlet to revenge — becomes a mere trifle in a wider moral catastrophe. Barker’s Gertrude (Pamela J. Gray) is more empowered and garrulous, but she’s still an enigma. Her verbal “cry” — heard and discussed throughout — isn’t for herself, however; it expresses the lust, betrayal, and agony driving a corrupt society. It’s everything she doesn’t say in Shakespeare, and then some.
Gertrude: The Cry marks the tenth Barker play Potomac Theatre has tackled, and each summer there are rewards for soldiering in their basement bunker. For one, it’s a rare chance to see the work of a playwright essential to modern drama. For another, David Barlow gives a superb performance as the puerile, adolescent Hamlet, destroyed by a fixation on his mother’s bad-girl sexuality. Perhaps because the prince has such a penchant for self-theatricalizing, however, it sometimes feels as if Barlow is the only actor pushing Barker’s dense dialogue to a truly heightened sphere. Richard Romagnoli’s monochrome staging lets too much dead air hang over this heady post-tragedy. We quickly apprehend the damaged world Barker articulates, but we never glimpse the anarchic theater he envisioned to embody it.