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Several blocks from where a royal henchman cleverly castigates Shakespeare to his face in Redwood Curtain’s Equivocation, some contemporary Americans (and a distinguished ghost) are very conflicted about the Bard in the 1991 comedy I Hate Hamlet, now onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.
After the TV series that made him famous was cancelled, Andrew Rally (played by Evan Needham) has been rediscovering himself as an actor in New York. His agent (Gloria Montgomery) encouraged him to audition for the title role in a Shakespeare in Central Park production of Hamlet, and he is cast.
His romantic and virginal new girlfriend (Jennifer Trustem) swoons for the Shakespearian hero she wants him to be. But he immediately has second thoughts, especially after his Hollywood director (Anders Carlson) brings him a deal for a network series about a crusading young teacher in an inner city school who also has superpowers (he can fly, “but only about ten feet up. See, we’re keeping it real.”)
All the action transpires in a vintage Manhattan apartment that Rally’s real estate agent (Kristen Collins) has found for him. It just happens to be the former abode of actor John Barrymore, whose 1920s Hamlet became legendary. A seance summons Barrymore from the beyond to advise Rally on his own portrayal of the conflicted Melancholy Dane.
Should he or shouldn’t he? To be or not to be? TV or not TV? Does he hate Hamlet, or himself?
I Hate Hamlet is a comedy by Paul Rudnick, rich in jokes but with a bit more substance than it pretends to have. It is also awkwardly constructed, especially at the start. With all the set-up, exposition and unfamiliar New York and German accents, the first act at NCRT wobbled gamely forward until Anders Carlson as the irrepressible Hollywood director infused the stage with comic energy. The character certainly provides it, with lines like: “Am I like the most self-obsessed person you’ve ever met? My answer? Yes.”
Carlson's character is also very funny on the supposed obsolescence of the stage. After theatre and movies came television, he says. "That's like, art perfected...I mean, when I go to the theatre I sit there and most of the time I'm thinking, which one is my armrest?"
Most of what the play says about Barrymore is historically accurate and relevant to Rally’s dilemma. Barrymore was the theatrical equivalent of a sitcom actor until he triumphed as Hamlet on Broadway and perhaps more impressively, in London. Then he left for Hollywood.
Director David Moore and cast seem to have elected to do a fairly subdued version of this sometimes raucously produced play. That choice perhaps allows for more human feeling in the Barrymore-Rally scenes in the second act—in any case, this is where Needham and Litten especially excel. Gloria Montgomery also delivers a moving set piece in Act II.
On opening night some comic timing and delivery wasn’t yet sharp, a not uncommon occurrence. There seems to be more potential in the script for vocalizing (and projecting) some lusciously comic lines. Fortunately there are three more weekends in the run to discover such opportunities and possibly make a funny show funnier.
Calder Johnson is scenic designer, Telfer Reynolds designed lighting, Michael Thomas the sound, Laura Rhinehart properties as well as costumes. I Hate Hamlet is performed weekends at NCRT through October 11. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.
[Aside]: In portraying a stage legend, I Hate Hamlet's 1991 Broadway production itself became legendary. The brilliant English actor (and former Hamlet) Nichol Williamson was increasingly erratic in his performance as Barrymore. In the sword fight one evening, he swatted costar Evan Handler in the back. Handler immediately exited the stage and kept on going, out of the theatre and out of the play forever.