The Melancholy Dane has been done by so many so well that every performance of Hamlet is haunted by the geniuses of the past. Recognizing just how haunted the part is, playwright Paul Rudnick brings back the specter of one of those geniuses, early American movie star and Hamlet extraordinaire John Barrymore, to guide and goad the TV-actor protagonist of I Hate Hamlet through this most difficult of all of Shakespeare's heroic roles. Director Chip Walton has assembled a crack cast to celebrate the art of acting in Rudnick's charming homage to the theater, and the Aurora Fox fairly crackles with merriment.
His TV show recently canceled, Andrew Rally comes to New York to play Hamlet in the much vaunted Shakespeare in the Park program. We don't really know why a hack has been given so prestigious a role--Andrew knows he can get more work on TV and make a lot more money doing it. But something draws him to the Bard and to the big stretch, and his real estate broker draws him to Barrymore's old pad--elegant, if a trifle medieval for Andrew's taste.
Andrew's adorable, daffy virgin girlfriend, Deirdre, shows up to gasp in admiration and breathe in the very air Barrymore himself once breathed. Andrew's agent, an aging beauty named Lillian, comes to encourage Andrew and look for the hairpins she once left in this very apartment--artifacts of a fondly remembered tryst with the old ham.
Even Andrew's business manager shows up, with another TV deal guaranteed to take the stuffing out of artistic pretensions (six figures' worth) and return our hero to sanity. But lingering on the edges of eternity is the ghost of Hamlet past, who emerges one night as Andrew struggles with the problem of Art versus Commerce. Commerce is about to win, but Barrymore appeals to something in Andrew that not even big bucks can touch. The play's the thing, and even when Andrew's opening night is a flop, Shakespeare's claws are wedged permanently in his brain--he wants to act. Barrymore can return to the infinite with a clear conscience.
It may be a tad hard to believe that a guy like Andrew would give up what eventually evolves into a seven-figure fee just to serve the Muse, and Rudnick doesn't try too hard to convince us that there really is an artist hiding inside the cretin Andrew seems to be. Still, the production is winning enough to carry the viewer along on its own good spirits. And those high-flying feelings are roused by Chip Walton's bright, crisp direction: He has his actors toss off a few quips just to make the big jokes land with more comic precision and gives the cast free, natural stage movement--nothing looks awkward or premeditated. Then, too, he had the very good sense to cast Richard Nelson as Barrymore.
Nelson is young for a role like this one, but he carries it off as if he were born to it. Granted, it's a fun part--lots of exaggerated histrionics meant to make us giggle (particularly those who know silent movies and remember big theatrical gestures from the era before the "Method" set in). But when Nelson really does deliver Hamlet's advice to the players--which is the best advice ever given actors about performance--he's splendid.
Always a pleasure to watch, Emily Newman Walton gives us a delightful, broad comic performance as Felicia the apartment broker, who also happens to be psychic. Terri Enders-Miller's exuberant performance as perpetual innocent Deirdre sometimes spills over the top but is nevertheless endearing and funny. Jennifer Turner as Lillian lends a weightier dry wit to the show that offsets all the sweetness, and Matt Cohen makes Gary the business manager hilariously Hollywooden.
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Timothy Tait has found a new level in his work as Andrew. He has so often played weasels in the past that it's interesting to see what he can do with a good-hearted hero for a change--and to see how much he's growing as an actor. One of the most charming gags of the show is an in-joke, set up by the fact that Tait is the local expert on stage combat, employed by just about everybody in town whenever a sword fight is needed. At one point in the play, Barrymore teaches Andrew to duel, and Tait feigns awkwardness with the foil. In fact, he's the one who choreographed the whole sequence.
Hamlet is the greatest test of skill for an actor. And what makes this comedy worthwhile, finally, is something not all that comic: Rudnick's affection for the art of acting--and for the great traditions and brilliant literature of the theater.
I Hate Hamlet, through October 20 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 361-2910.