Here's the secret to an effective portrayal of Hamlet: Put a potato in your codpiece.
Or so claims John Barrymore. Of course, he's been dead for decades, and his notions are rather old-fashioned. Then again, Barrymore has recently materialized to coach the sort of contemporary actor who is probably beyond remediation: a television star. A well-placed potato may be the only possible improvement to this thespian's equipment.
Such is the acting class that is Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet, which is enjoying a lovable production at Live Theatre Workshop.
Andrew Rally is the TV star in question; his popular doctor series has been canceled, and against his better judgment, he has moved to New York to try his hand at legitimate theater. To his amazement, he has been cast in the title role of Hamlet. This, despite the fact that he has no experience with classical acting, and indeed has coasted through his TV series on the strength of his charm rather than any real ability. He also has absolutely no comprehension of Shakespeare's text.
Luckily--if you call this luck--he has just moved into an apartment formerly owned by John Barrymore, regarded as the last great American Hamlet, a reputation based on performances back in the 1920s. Andrew realizes he'll just be the latest in a long line of actors who don't measure up. But materializing to save the day is the ghost of Barrymore, who vows to turn Andrew into a worthy Hamlet in just six weeks.
Andrew's motivation to succeed is not so much to avoid making a fool of himself as to bed his girlfriend, a 28-year-old virgin waiting until she's "sure," but strangely turned on by the idea of Andrew as Hamlet. He also has to deal with his agent, an aging but stoic German woman who had a fling with Barrymore in her youth; a very New York real-estate broker who gets tangled up in Andrew's little world; and a crass producer friend from Los Angeles who wants Andrew to give up this ridiculous Hamlet idea and come star in a new TV series, about which the less is said, the better.
Andrew finds it all exasperating. At one point, he exclaims, "No sex? Shakespeare? It's like high school."
Playwright Rudnick at times nearly falls into TV sitcom patterns, yet he saves himself with lines that are truly funny, particularly if they're underplayed. Says Lillian, Andrew's agent, "Don't ask me about great ideas. I am German." As Lillian, Maxine Gillespie cuts an elegant if steel-spined figure with a slight streak of sentimentality. It's a subtle and dignified performance of a role that in less-intelligent hands could careen into Frau Blücher territory.
Key to the success of this production, directed by Howard Allen with an emphasis on character over punch lines, is Richard Ivey as John Barrymore. Ivey in no way resembles Barrymore, but he has the charisma and bearing of a Great Actor. Ivey is suave enough to put Barrymore across--Barrymore in his prime, not the hard-drinking, womanizing self-parody he became late in life. Ivey takes seriously a line Rudnick gives his character: "I do not overact. I simply possess the emotional resources of 10 men. I am not a ham; I'm a crowd."
Ivey himself shows signs of being a first-rate Shakespearean. He doesn't get to do the famous Hamlet soliloquy; rather, Rudnick has Barrymore's ghost deliver Hamlet's own advice on acting, a passage that actors have much more trouble putting across convincingly than "To be or not to be." Ivey absolutely nails it.
For theater fans, the fun of I Hate Hamlet is the conflict between Barrymore's and Andrew's acting philosophies. Old-school Barrymore emphasizes projecting a persona to the audience. That potato in the codpiece helps, but surely the most hilarious moment in the play is his demonstration of how to take a curtain call. Andrew, in contrast, has been taught the modern style of drawing the character from within himself, whether or not that character makes it across the footlights intact. His most amusing moment is his preparation exercises--a series of silly noises, funny faces and ridiculous stretches that are all too common backstage and in acting class.
Stephen Frankenfield, as Andrew, pulls this off extremely well, but his real strength is his ability to convey Andrew's self-knowing insecurity without turning him into a petulant ninny. Jodi Rankin is as fine, as expected, as Andrew's loopy girlfriend; Kristi Loera has the real-estate broker's New Yorker personality down pat without turning cartoonish; and Eric Schumacher is first-rate as the self-absorbed, anti-intellectual TV producer. (Shakespeare, he maintains, is "like algebra onstage.")
The fencing scene isn't as elegantly madcap as might be desired; the action is hemmed in by Seren Helday's necessarily small but serviceable set. Otherwise, what's not to like about I Hate Hamlet?