PITTSFIELD — When divorced from his matchless prose, the novels of John Updike have proven resistant to dramatic adaptation.
The James Caan-starring 1970 film version of “Rabbit, Run’’ was a sluggish and stumbling affair, while 1987’s starry “The Witches of Eastwick’’ (Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon) concocted an incoherent brew whose primary ingredient was ego.
So Mark St. Germain gets points for venturesomeness, at a minimum, for choosing to adapt “Gertrude and Claudius,’’ Updike’s 2000 prequel to “Hamlet.’’ Now at Barrington Stage Company, directed by Julianne Boyd, “Gertrude and Claudius’’ stars an utterly superb Kate MacCluggage as Gertrude and a charismatic Elijah Alexander as Claudius.
The play tells the back story of Hamlet’s mother and uncle, tracing the inexorable unfolding of the pair’s passionate love affair and the resulting murder of a king, which of course paved the way for the revenge plot of Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, not to mention literature’s most famous case of the existential willies.
Transmuting and melding the disparate voices of one of the giants of American letters with the greatest dramatist of all time while establishing a voice of your own cannot have been an easy task for playwright St. Germain, and the strain shows during the turgid intervals in Act One of “Gertrude and Claudius,’’ when the play struggles to find an identity of its own.
It’s as if St. Germain (“Freud’s Last Session,’’ “Becoming Dr. Ruth’’) is trapped between the language and metaphysical scope of Shakespeare and Updike (who wouldn’t be?) while also hemmed in by the conventions and thematic echoes of historical dramas like “A Man for All Seasons’’ and “The Lion in Winter,’’ which also dealt with questions of family, power, and loyalty.
But there’s a reason that plays have second acts. After intermission, “Gertrude and Claudius’’ comes into its own, growing quicker, sharper, and more compelling. Under Boyd’s taut direction, the production amps up the mortal stakes as Queen Gertrude embarks on a quite dangerous affair with Claudius, the swashbuckling brother of her outwardly bland but ruthless husband, King Amleth (Douglas Rees). Bit by bit, the castle at Elsinore (broodingly rendered by scenic designer Lee Savage) turns into a stage for life-and-death plots and counterplots.
Unsurprisingly but intriguingly, St. Germain’s portraits of Gertrude and Claudius are far more sympathetic than Shakespeare’s — and far less sympathetic to Amleth, or, for that matter, to young Hamlet (Nick LaMedica), who, when he shows up, proves to be kind of a twerp. In “Gertrude and Claudius,’’ unlike in “Hamlet,’’ Claudius’s decision to murder his own brother is not framed as driven only by his lust for the king’s wife and throne.
As the decidedly non-heroic King Amleth, Rees brings the necessary force to the scenes where the ruler shows his true colors, though his performance overall does not project the kind of stature that would explain why Hamlet would revere his father so. As Polonius, the ever-sententious chamberlain who is half-drawn into the palace intrigue and half-enters it willingly, Rocco Sisto is less impressive than usual (or at least he was at the performance I attended). Greg Thornton is similarly tentative as King Rorik, Gertrude’s doting father, but Mary Stout is a font of go-for-broke comic relief as Herda, the lady’s maid to Gertrude.
Part of the challenge for actors in a prequel of this sort is to endow their characters with equal parts individuality and familiarity, persuasively embodying younger versions of figures we know well but not allowing their performances to be defined by established incarnations. Are we convinced that, yes, this is what Gertrude and Claudius were like before we came to know them in “Hamlet’’?
On that score and every other, MacCluggage succeeds marvelously well. Her exquisitely controlled performance, subtle yet intensely expressive, gives us a Gertrude precariously balanced between restraint and desire. And when Gertrude yields to the latter and embarks on an affair with Claudius, MacCluggage makes sure that we see the action as part of her larger effort to bring meaning to a life long circumscribed by an arranged marriage and estrangement from her moody son.
Alexander, too, sounds Claudius to his depths, revealing traces of kid-brother insecurity and the need for validation that lies beneath Claudius’s braggadocio, swagger, and sexual confidence. Crucially, Alexander and MacCluggage generate considerable heat in their scenes together, even before Gertrude and Claudius have so much as embraced. We believe in the force of the mutual attraction between this pair, whose love will eventually yield so much tragedy.
Though “Gertrude and Claudius’’ takes a while to find its footing, and its refractions through the St. Germain-Updike-Shakespeare prism cast an uncertain light at times, the play does an admirable job illuminating the complexity, tangled motives, and poignant journey of Gertrude, in particular. She is shortchanged in “Hamlet,’’ so it’s satisfying to see her finally get her due.
GERTRUDE AND CLAUDIUS
Play by Mark St. Germain. Based on the novel by John Updike. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Presented by Barrington Stage Company, at Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, through Aug. 3. Tickets: $15-$65, 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org