Everyone knows that in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the melancholy Dane's epic indecision is caused, in large part, by the appearance of his dead father's ghost. In Paul Rudnick's crafty comedy I Hate Hamlet, which opened last weekend at the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, the hero is television actor Andrew Rally, whose own indecision—about whether or not to take the part of Hamlet in an upcoming stage production in Central Park—is the reason the ghost appears to begin with. The ghost, that of legendary actor and one-time Hamlet John Barrymore, is sent from the afterlife to prepare the nervous actor to play the prince of Denmark, a role Andrew feels entirely unprepared for but knows has the potential to alter his life—one way or another.
Andrew, with virginal Shakespeare-loving girlfriend Deirdre in tow, has just rented the New York City apartment that once housed Barrymore himself, and still bears the marks of the great actor's fondness for classical furnishings, complete with suit of armor and Medieval tapestries (a great set by David R. Wright and Nick Charles).
"Look at this place! Is there a moat?" Andrew wants to know. An impromptu séance—during which Andrew utters the confession, "I hate Hamlet!"—results in the semi-resurrection of the famed actor-lover-drinker, whose first act is to pour himself a stiff drink. "Sometimes," he remarks with a flourish, "I'm not sure if I'm dead or just incredibly drunk." Since only Andrew sees the ghost (with one or two interesting exceptions), the resulting spectral master class leads to a number of confusing situations, each a hilarious send-up of actors, directors, television, celebrity worship, the pros and cons of performing Shakespeare and Hamlet itself, a play Barrymore warns has the power to change an actor forever.
It's a rich and funny idea, and Rudnick's script capitalizes on it beautifully, teasing out a whole series of amusing confrontations between Andrew (played with acerbic intelligence and cocky self-doubt by Rep regular Ben Stowe) and Barrymore (Rep artistic director Scott Phillips, showing the heart beneath Barrymore's ham), as the living and the dead develop a gradual respect for one another. This kind of comedy is all about timing and pace, and director Jennifer King keeps things popping along when they need to pop, and pulling back for occasional moments of serious introspection, all staged with inventive bits and pieces that sometimes come out of nowhere. A highlight is the elaborately funny swordfight that ends Act I, as Barrymore discovers that his new student contains more spirit and promise than he'd first assumed.
Though Stowe and Phillips are the heart and soul of the show, King has assembled a tight, energetic supporting cast. As Deirdre, Allison Marcom (most commonly seen in musicals), demonstrates a strong comic flair. In the show-stopping role of Gary, Andrew's Hollywood director pal and sometime creative partner, Dan Saski is a whirlwind of creative comic choices. Rudnick gives Gary some of the script's funniest (and snarkiest) lines, dismissing his friend's impending Hamlet in the park as "Shakespeare for squirrels," and casually dissing Barrymore—whom he can actually see, but not recognize—with the industry observation that "an 'actor' is just some English guy who can't get a TV series."
Rounding out the cast are Emily Gomes as Felicia, an over-enthusiastic New York real estate agent and occasional psychic, and Peggy Van Patten as Lillian, Andrew's chain-smoking agent, who once had a fling with Barrymore and knows a thing or two about Shakespeare's power to transform people.
This includes Barrymore's ghost, who by the end of the show has actually discovered a measure of humility, copped to his life-ending status as a "hopeless, unemployable lush" and even developed some hard-won respect for his overcautious student. Thankfully, humility never stops the dead Barrymore from uttering lines like "I do not overact—I simply possess the emotional resources of 10 men."
While Shakespeare might sometimes be, as Gary wryly remarks, just "algebra onstage," Rudnick's playful I Hate Hamlet is one big recess from beginning to end.
'I Hate Hamlet' runs Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 21. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Sonoma County Repertory Theater, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. $20&–$25. 707.823.0177.
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