It’s that time of year again. It gets darker a little earlier; there’s talk of ghosts and spirits, and the full moon seems a bit more eerie in the night sky. Fitting the season, Hillbarn Theatre, celebrating its 67th season in San Mateo County, offers playgoers Paul Rudnick’s wicked little comedy, I Hate Hamlet, in which the semi-washed up soap star, Andrew Rally, battles with both his conscience and the séance-conjured ghost of John Barrymore over whether or not to undertake the role of Hamlet in New York’s Central Park. A bevy of supporters rally around Andrew for an eclectic mix of comedy, inspiration, pride and nostalgia, quick wit and vulgar charm, and lead Andrew into the role of a lifetime.
Rudnick provides directors and actors with a simple “How To” when it comes to producing his play, found in the textual introduction to the script, itself. It’s sort of reminiscent of Hamlet instructing the Players. “Speak the speech…trippingly on the tongue…” and all that jazz. Hunt Burdick does a fine job directing his actors into their roles. Emily Greco plays Deirdre McDavey, Rally’s wide-eyed, idealistic yet sweet, frustratingly virginal girlfriend. You can’t help but want to both shake and hug Greco for her overt enthusiasm for and romantic vision of her boyfriend’s new role. Nicole Martin plays Rally’s real estate broker, Felicia Dantine, who hooks Rally up in this play’s only set— the “medieval duplex” once owned by John Barrymore. The high ceiling—or roof, I should say; Hillbarn is, indeed, a transformed barn—works well to create the duplex effect. R. Dutch Fritz designed the set with a two flight, winding staircase leading up to a Julietesque balcony that looks over the main living space. The railing at the top of the first flight opens in order to accommodate Craig C. Lewis (John Barrymore) as he takes superhero flight across the stage by way of a rope hanging from the decadent red velvet curtains framing the backdrop. Thankfully, Barrymore transforms Rally’s shabby décor back into his own early twentieth century digs, with a velvet chaise, a suit of armor situated next to the fireplace, and a globe seated to the right of his “throne,” filled with glassware and various bottles of liquor. Remember, all the world’s a bar for Barrymore.
Martin plays Dantine as though she conjured the ghost of Fran Drescher (The Nanny years—as if there were any other). Picture the short and tight gaudy dresses, the high heels paired with the short steps, the big hair, and of course that nasally Jersey-girl voice. As irritating a character was the Nanny—perhaps because her role was recurring—Martin, along with Rich Dymer, who plays Rally’s wheeling and dealing L.A. friend Gary Peter Lefkowitz, is endearing and a fine representation of low art.
Mary Horne is potent and regal in the smaller role of Rally’s dedicated and aging agent, Lillian Troy. Horne speaks with a German accent, and carries herself with an air of stoic dignity, her chin always up, her emotions in check, her dress always with an old-fashioned, jeweled elegance. There’s a sense that Troy will soon cross over into the ghostly realm, as well, but there’s no doubt she’s led her life to the fullest, made apparent when she discovers her hat pin in Rally’s new duplex, left there decades ago during a one night love affair with the then man of the house, John Barrymore.
Aside from Lewis’ tights, a sense of fashion doesn’t exactly adorn this production. Brady is for some reason tied to his raggedy pair of green sneakers, even when he dons his tights and tunic on opening night. Greco also has an odd fetish for bad shoes, sporting knit slipper socks or a pair of black and white Converse throughout, whether with her long and frumpy flowered skirt and muted cardigan, or her lovely lady-in-waiting costume for her bit part in Rally’s play.
As Rally, played by Joseph Brady, battles with his conscience over whether to tackle the role of Hamlet, or to take the money for a sitcom pitched by Lefkowitz, I battle with whether or not I like Brady in his role as Rally. Frankly, Brady is more awkward than “potent” or “charming” (as the “How To” says he ought to be) until the very important, life-changing moment in Rally’s career when he recalls connecting with his part as Hamlet for the duration of his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. It is at this point Brady finally connects with his audience, and he (as well as his character) is deemed a real and a really good actor. Everything else seems like he’s living in a sitcom. My guest and I had a good talk about this after the play and over a drink in an attempt to conjure why it is Brady stands out so. The best case scenario we could come up with is this: perhaps Brady is supposed to be flat and bland (sort of like a soap star), at times overacting and most times under, in order for his two minute epiphany to so blatantly stand out. But O! That would make this the worst part in the world for any actor to play. (Playwright's Note: Leading role must act poorly for 99% of the play, and then knock everyone’s socks off in a NY minute at the end.) It’s an interesting theory, but more than likely, Brady was having an off night.
Lewis, on the other hand, is by all measures the star of this production. I do believe Lewis conjured Barrymore for his role, for at times even I was romantically fooled. Lewis first appears to the flourish of trumpets, stepping out of a ghostly mist (only seen by Rally, and eventually by Troy for a delicious encounter at the end of the play). Wearing a belted black tunic and the apropos tights (Cue swoon), not a hair out of place, and a glass of champagne always in hand, Lewis is every inch a Barrymore, circa 1935. The ghost of Barrymore appears not entirely because of Martin’s eye rolling séance, but because apparently every actor who takes on the role of Hamlet is visited and guided by one of the greats, be it Barrymore, Olivier, Kemble, Booth, or another. Rally just so happens to admire Barrymore. Nice coincidence that he finds himself living in the actor’s old haunt. Even when Brady falls flat, the mere presence of Lewis on stage saves these and any scenes. I was thrilled to read Rudnick’s introduction to his script, and find at the end the very thing that sums up this production of I Hate Hamlet at the Hillbarn Theatre. Rudnick closes with, “May the Barrymore panache rule all productions.” Panache. Edmond Rostand wrote about it and gave it to his Cyrano, and it just so happens to be my credo.
“Panache is not greatness, but something added to greatness, which stirs underneath it. It’s something acrobatic, excessive and a little over-ornamented. It’s the courage that dares to find the right world for the situation. Certainly heroes without panache are a little more unselfish, but heroes with panache strike a pose while making the sacrifice. I little frivolous, perhaps, a little theatrical without a doubt, panache is only a grace; but that grace implies so much strength—isn’t the soaring spirit our most beautiful victory over the quaking flesh?—that all the same, it’s a grace I wish us all.”—Edmond Rostand
From the first flourish of the trumpet, through sword fight, through every bottle of champagne; as he takes flight across the stage, and takes Rally under his wing, up until he strikes his theatrical bow to close the show, there’s no doubt about it. Lewis’ Barrymore’s got panache.
I Hate Hamlet, written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Hunt Burdick, is being performed at the Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, CA from October 18-November 11, 2007. For more information, visit www.hillbarntheatre.org .