“We must never confuse truth with asthma,” booms the ghost of John Barrymore in the delightful “I Hate Hamlet.”
Yes, that’s solid advice. When you’re trying to pull off the most famous soliloquy in Western literature, wheezing through “To be or not to be” is not a recommended way to connect with the essence of your character.
Paul Rudnick’s witty and well-written romp is a summer treat from Good Company Players. Director Elizabeth Fiester and an accomplished cast strike a fine balance between insider Shakespeare jokes and general silliness. Key to the show is a small but fierce message: The real way to build character is to tackle a major challenge rather than succeed at the expected.
Do you have to know “Hamlet” to appreciate “I Hate Hamlet”? Not really, though it does help to have a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s famed play. But you’ve probably already assimilated that through the drama’s definitive cultural imprint. (If you know that Ophelia takes an unscheduled swim, you’re fine.) More important, perhaps, is a familiarity with Barrymore, the 1930s movie matinee idol considered by some as one of the greatest Hamlets ever.
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In Rudnick’s version, the ghost of Barrymore (played by a wonderful CJ Dion) returns to his old New York apartment to haunt a beleaguered TV actor named Andrew Rally (an amusing Chase Stubblefield, whose understated performance is just the right touch). Andrew, whose hit TV show was just cancelled, has moved to New York in an effort to stretch his acting muscle, and on impulse has been cast as Hamlet in a Shakespeare in the Park production.
Andrew is rightfully scared to death that he’s in way over his head by tackling such a difficult role, and Barrymore has some amusing tips for playing Hamlet. But far more interesting is the clash between fame and talent that Barrymore seems to exemplify. (Rudnick depicts him as a sweet lush who at one point in his later movies needed cue cards just to remember his lines.) Should Andrew go for easy big bucks with another TV deal or actually try to grow as an actor? Barrymore has a definite opinion, but, then again, he’s an imperfect role model.
Each member of the small ensemble cast gets a chance to shine. Jessica Rose Knotts is terrific as Andrew’s love interest, Deirdre, whose flighty idealism gives her an appealing kookiness. Valerie Munoz is pitch-perfect as a raucous real-estate broker. Karan Johnson, as Andrew’s agent, is a little loose with her character’s accent – she’s supposed to be German but sounds as if she should be voting on Brexit – but gives a deft performance that splits the difference between acerbic and sweet.
If you’re a 2nd Space patron, you’ve been regularly treated to the appeal of Alex Vaux in numerous supporting roles, and this is one of his best. As Gary, a blustery L.A. director, Vaux chomps his way through the role with such an overbearing swagger that you almost want to spray him with Lysol. It’s hard to believe he last played a witty and refined Oscar Wilde character.
David Pierce’s set is an appealing glimpse of medieval kitsch, complete with tiny stained glass windows and a tapestry, and Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s costumes are fun. (Real Hamlets wear tights, Barrymore says.) Hannah Wilson’s lighting design could use more nuance with transitions between realism and fantasy.
The core of the show, along with Fiester’s assured direction, is Dion. He manages to subtly parody an old-fashioned movie-matinee idol and at the same time project many of the same qualities: a dramatic presence, booming confidence, melodious voice, lots of nifty hand gestures and a magnetic appeal. Keep your mothers and daughters locked up after the show, or you might “Hate” yourself in the morning.
I Hate Hamlet
- Through Aug. 14
- 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-0660
- $20, $17 students and seniors