Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
Now at Atlantic Stage 2, Romagnoli’s staging of Howard Barker’s play seethes with sexuality and menace. Cribbing wildly from Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, the script begins with Gertrude convincing Claudius to poison her husband (Hamlet’s father), and from there it follows her sexual and intellectual rampage through her kingdom. Will she continue sleeping with Claudius even after she beds Albert, a visiting duke? Absolutely. But she’ll also grapple with her body and the people who want to control it, whether they’re jealous lovers or her morose son Hamlet, who fixates on punishing her for her supposed sins.
If that sounds morally complicated, well… of course it is. And Barker’s style makes it impossible to simplify his ideas. The second the play seems like a heavy-hearted lament, for instance, he’ll add a bawdy burst of humor about someone’s genitals. “His tones changes with virtually every other line, and that’s one thing I really enjoy about Howard’s work,” Romagnoli says. “He leads you on a certain trail of pathos or comedy, then undercuts it almost instantly. It’s wonderful to have to deal with those things and create realities for them, as opposed to something traditionally ‘realistic.’”
In fact, Romagnoli, who’s been regularly mounting Barker’s worksince he co-founded Potomac Theatre Project in 1987, contends that the only way to do this play justice is to fully embrace its unpredictability. Take the aforementioned scene about Gertrude’s underwear: While Hamlet (David Barlow) delivers a heart-rending speech about his failing family, Albert (Bill Army) not only cavorts around with a pair of the queen’s panties, but also asks Hamlet to arrange a tryst. The dissonance between the wounded son and the lusting duke is remarkably jarring, particularly because Army performs with such leaping, drooling gusto.
“It’s an offensive scene, and it’s made more so by the degrees of passion that are driving both the characters,” Romagnoli says. “But that’s in the scene. Here’s a young man who’s talking about his friend’s mother’s underwear. Why would you want to talk discreetly about it? The playwright is really giving you a lot to work with, and as a director, I’m not going to shrink away from trying to embrace the moment as best I can.”
What’s more, Romagnoli has even added an element that isn’t in the script. In his production, near the end of this scene, Gertrude (Pamela J. Gray) enters and comforts Hamlet in his misery. As the director says, “It’s a moment of playing antithesis and juxtaposition and turning something on its head. Just a moment before, [Hamlet's] friend was talking about screwing the very woman who is now kissing her son. And I love that.”