KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 27, 1994
Not only does it have a provocative title, “I Hate Hamlet,” a play first produced in 1991, already has a place in theater history. During its brief but legendary Broadway run, in the middle of a duel scene, one actor actually tried to injure another, while he ad-libbed a variety of denigrating comments about the younger man’s thespian prowess and then stormed off the stage. This prompted playwright Paul Rudnick to append his author’s notes as follows: “While the role of John Barrymore is that of an alcoholic star, it is not absolutely necessary to hire one… Perhaps Nicol Williamson began to identify too completely with the role.”
Well, I’m glad to say that there were no injuries onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, but there were many, many laughs. “I Hate Hamlet” is a hilarious play. Here’s the setup. Andrew is a successful TV sitcom actor. When his series is canceled, his agent sets him up to audition for the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Hamlet.” When he needs to move to New York to play the role, a quirky agent finds him a Gothic piece of theatrical history in the heart of Greenwich Village: the former digs of the legendary John Barrymore, known as much for his carousing and womanizing as for his unforgettable portrayal of the melancholy Dane. Barrymore’s ghost appears to Andrew to carry on “a proud theatrical tradition”: every poor, demented soul who undertakes perhaps the most complex role in the English language, is permitted to summon an earlier player for assistance. So Barrymore arrives, dressed, of course, as the prince, and helps Andrew with his lines, his interpretation — and his virginal girlfriend.
As the bombastic, grandiloquent poser, Stanley Madruga Jr. may be a bit young, and perhaps a bit… mannered, but he is magnificent. He struts, he leaps, he saws the air, he frequently flaunts “The Great Profile.” His character, like Barrymore himself, is way larger than life. But all the characters in this play come straight from the char-CUTE-erie: a virtual display-case for ham.
There’s the slick, shallow L.A. hyphenate (writer-producer-director) who thinks of Shakespeare as “algebra on stage.” There’s the Germanic, supercilious agent in the fur coat; the gum-snapping, prototypical Noo Yawk realtor who talks regularly with her dead mother; and there’s the virtuous, saintly girlfriend, whom the playwright describes as “a Valley girl imagining herself a Brontë heroine.” In the center of all this excess is Andrew, unadorned and adorable. Michael Schwarz captures the handsome affability and believability, although you might expect a bit more ego in a recognizable sitcom star. As the theatrical agent and the real estate agent, Dawne Ellison and Sandra Ellis-Troy are both too young, and their accents come and go like plays on Broadway, but both master the essence in an endearing way. Stina Sundberg-Lake has a tough job with the girlfriend — part Alice in Wonderland, Ophelia, Mother Teresa and Moon Unit Zappa, she’s hard to swallow. Seth Neely is way underdressed as the L.A. sharpie, but he’s definitely funny.
The whole play is funny, a side-splitting writer’s delirious tribute to actors. Director Olive Blakistone has gotten it just right. The pace is lively, the timing pretty near perfect. In a piece in which everything is overdone, though, the set, lighting and sound may actually be underplayed here.
But the production should not be missed — whether you love or hate Hamlet, fondly remember or never heard of John Barrymore. Whether or not you’ve read Paul Rudnick’s hysterical novel, “I’ll Take It” — which you must. Don’t go hoping to see one actor physically injure another. But do go to check out the riotous vehicle that could engender that level of theatrical lunacy.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.