GOD SAVE GERTRUDE
Workhaus Collective at the Playwrights' Center
through February 10612.332.7481
You know how it goes: You grow up and you calm down. Next thing you know, you're working for the clampdown (as the Clash once put it). The big sellout can overtake the best of us, though in Deborah Stein's new play it happens to perhaps the unlikeliest—a suit-wearing, pearl-bedecked first lady of an unnamed country who shares a name (Gertrude) with the mother of the best-known character in Western lit (a certain prince of Denmark).
Gertrude (Annie Enneking) first makes her uncertain way to the stage through the audience, staggering and looking generally used-up. She livens up considerably once she grabs a microphone, though, informing the audience that she was once the "punk-rock queen of this neck of the woods." She name-checks Joan Jett and Debbie Harry, but clearly most central to Gertrude's heart is Patti Smith, who kept it real while Gertrude was getting hitched to her second husband, the leader of a police state, and going legit (throwing aside her punk awesomeness, we're told, for a cooking show on TV).
Punctuating matters is a series of loud 'n' fast tunes by David Hanbury, with lyrics by him and Stein, that run the gamut from punk roar to punchy pop. (The Shortcuts provide the show's musical backup.) Enneking proves a versatile singer, capable of moving from throaty yell to chiming high notes in a single line. Hanbury, who also appears as the character Mama's Boy, ably handles his own vocal territory.
Mama's Boy, whom his mother calls a "precious little poet," is a rock star as well, specializing in navel gazing, and is also a junkie. Gertrude and Mama's Boy spar over the past, with memories of Gertrude's first (late) husband hanging over things like a dark cloud. With the entrance of Gertrude's new husband, the Man (Marlin L. Rothe), we receive another wrinkle: Mama's Boy's youthful fans are more interested in listening to his songs than fighting in the military, and a rebel insurgency is threatening at the country's gates.
Enneking sells her character by going intermittently nuts, addressing the audience with bursts of wild-eyed madness masquerading as cloud-parting insight. (On opening night she spotted a couple in the audience, pronounced one half adorable, then told the other to "watch out for her—or I'll come down there and eat her head"). She's all feral charisma, tough and full of burnt-out conviction that evokes the Faustian bargains that her character has made.
The central problem is where to go with any of this (riffs, you know, are famously difficult to shape into coherent songs), though the arrival of Ophelia stand-in Daddy's Girl (Kate Durand) provides our young protagonist with someone else to jar against. By now Mama's Boy is well and worked up into a lather, his character strung out and desperate to sabotage his stepfather.
Director Randy Reyes grabs onto the emotional currents in Stein's scenario, his four players pairing off in scene after scene and generally picking each other's scabs. The quality of the performances tends to keep our interest, even if the characters are really little more than sketches. By the time we have the Man poignantly proclaiming his love for Gertrude to Mama's Boy, we've even moved from the punk-rock mythic into the realm of intense family drama.
So this show is undeniably a hodgepodge, nicely symbolized by Anna Lawrence's duct-tape and newspaper set (an audience member next to me sat on a batch of taped-together Vogue magazines. Get there early and you might claim the battered sofa). There are stretches when it groans under the weight of its own conceit, and you find yourself longing for the next song to break up all the talk of rebels, bombs, and revolution. But this three-chord fable, overall, is genuinely fresh and fun, possessing sufficient brass to obviously revere the greatest play in the English language while spray-painting dirty words over it when no one's looking. Which, in this case, is a fine approach to take.