It's no holds bard for I Hate Hamlet at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Sam Gregory and Alex Esola in I Hate Hamlet.
ZACHARY ANDREWS/COLORADO SHAKESPEARE FESIVAL
I Hate Hamlet is a bit like the curate's egg: hilariously funny in parts and in others so idiotic that you're embarrassed for the actors. Why is the radiant Jamie Ann Romero wasting her talents wafting about as Deirdre, a stagestruck 29-year-old virgin who'll have sex with boyfriend Andrew only if he plays Hamlet in Central Park for Joe Papp? (Yes, this was written in 1991, when Papp still reigned.) In part because she worships legitimate theater, in part because she always wanted to be Ophelia, in part because she's just an incoherent ninny. Why is the redoubtably talented Martha Harmon Pardee sporting an excruciating New York accent as real-estate agent Felicia and uttering cries like a calf stabbed in the neck while supposedly conducting a seance intended to summon the ghost of her dead mother and — with Mom's help — also that of the great American actor John Barrymore?
The plot: Andrew, star of a television series called L.A. Medical, has been hired to play Hamlet not because of his talent, but because his fame will swell the audience. Andrew is aware of this, hates and is intimidated by the play, and has a major case of cold feet. He's moving into an apartment once inhabited by Barrymore for the duration — hence Felicia's seance.
Of course, Barrymore shows up. And at this point, the evening becomes — at least for a while — both smart and laugh-out-loud funny. First, because author Paul Rudnick seems to know the territory well and finds his feet here, and second, because Sam Gregory plays Barrymore, and from his first entrance — "Am I dead or just incredibly drunk?" — he pulls out all the stops. He hams, swoons, mugs, drinks everything in sight, becomes acerbic on the topic of Method acting ("We must never confuse truth with asthma") and wistful in thinking back on his own boozy, womanizing life. "I do not overact," he announces. "I simply possess the emotional resources of ten men." And when Barrymore-Gregory discourses on cucumbers and rolled socks, men's tights being under discussion, and eventually demonstrates how to make the most of a bow — well, descriptive powers fail. You have to see for yourself.
Steven Cole Hughes is equally riveting as television producer Gary Peter Lefkowitz. We all know television is generally bland, obvious and dumb, but Rudnick skewers the medium with biting accuracy, and Cole delivers the barbs with blindly magnificent self-satisfaction. Television, he says, is "like art perfected. When you watch TV, you can eat. You can talk. You don't really have to pay attention, not if you've seen TV before." Having pointed out that no one really wants to watch Shakespeare because the plays are long and incomprehensible, he pitches a pilot about an inner-city teacher and his students' lives. Andrew is tempted: This show sounds seductively serious-minded — until he learns that the teacher has superpowers that surface with the coming of night. (The Showtime series Episodes covers much of the same territory with wit and panache. It's about a British couple lured to Hollywood with promises of fame, creative freedom and money. Within weeks, their much-loved sitcom is dumbed down, their sanity falters and their marriage is on the rocks.)
When it comes to Shakespeare himself, Rudnick seems to want to have it both ways. He provides lots of easy wisecracks, but when Andrew asks for acting advice, Barrymore's response is a quietly moving rendition of Hamlet's "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you."
Alex Esola, whom I'd actually like to see play Hamlet someday, does well as straight man Andrew, even though, as written, the character is as unconvincing as poor Deirdre. There's a mildly touching plot development involving Andrew's German agent, Lillian Troy (well played by Anne Sandoe), who once had an affair with Barrymore, but it doesn't go anywhere. So what you ultimately get is a mix of cleverness, cheap shots, dopey visual jokes, some astonishingly good comic acting, and a whole bunch of scenes that go on way too long. But what the hell. At that point, you don't really have to pay attention — not if you've seen a play before.
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