Monday, September 7, 2015

Lots To Love In HART’s I Hate Hamlet

Paul Roder ("John Barrymore") and Benjamin Philip (Andrew Rally)

By Tina Arth

Bard lovers, Bard haters, even the Bard-indifferent should all find something to love in HART Theatre’s current production of Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet. Propelled by a menu of truly memorable one-liners, the show keeps its audience laughing, and at intermission folks seemed eager to get back into the theater (once they had devoured a few fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies) to see what gems the second act held in store.

The show marks Penny Lonergan’s debut as a HART director, and it’s a great start. Solid casting helps – in a six-person show, any weak link really hurts, but Hamlet is devoid of those cringe-worthy moments. With a script as witty as Rudnick’s, poor timing, rushed lines, pregnant pauses followed by mugging or muffled delivery – all would be downright criminal.

The story was new to me, and probably most of the audience. TV actor Andrew Rally arrives in New York City, after a run as lead in a recently cancelled LA-based TV series. Realtor Felicia Dantine has found him an apartment that is everything Andrew hates – a musty, vaguely Gothic brownstone once inhabited by the great John Barrymore. It’s so wrong for a displaced Angeleno in love with the new (an obvious commentary on the contrast between the modern transience of television vs. the lasting traditions of theatah…). Worse yet, agent Lillian Troy (who had a tryst with Barrymore years earlier) has booked him as Hamlet for Shakespeare in the Park – antiquated role, lots of work, no payback in terms of fame or fortune, and burdened with the history of Barrymore’s definitive 1922 Hamlet.  The cast also includes Deirdre McDavey, Andrew’s 25-year-old virgin girlfriend, and an astonishingly shallow LA buddy (producer-director Gary Peter Lefkowitz). A séance (to contact the ghost of Barrymore) that summons the spirit (and corpus) of the Great Man puts the foundation in place. Under Barrymore’s tutelage, Andrew learns to love the role and the apartment; Deirdre learns a thing or two about love, too. Felicia hitches her star to Gary to achieve her dream of being a Beverly Hills realtor, Lillian has one last tender moment with Barrymore before he disappears, and Andrew decides that despite his abysmal acting chops he’ll stay in New York and pursue real theater. Trust me, it’s a lot funnier than it sounds in synopsis!

Kathleen Silloway’s “Lillian” is a curious combination of Teutonic stiffness and romantic fantasy, and she captures this duality nicely in her performance, with bits of melodrama, languor, and carefully timed dry wit. Tamara Sorelli (“Felicia”) uses a mild New York accent to express her character’s shamelessly mercenary bent; I appreciate her restraint in allowing the script to drive the comedy, rather than chasing laughs with overacting. Les Ico (“Gary”) nobly represents all that is most despicable about Hollywood; he unselfconsciously dismisses all live theatre, especially Shakespeare, as “Algebra on stage”. Emma Heesacker (as the virginal “Deirdre”) has the least to work with – ingénues rarely get the best material – but when she is allowed to loosen up in Act II (post-Barrymore) she and the audience have a lot of fun with the role.

Benjamin Philip’s “Andrew” is funniest when playing off the Ghost of Barrymore (Paul Roder). His attempt to update Prince Hamlet with a sort of Valley Girl method acting is simply hilarious – he is at his best when acting like he’s overacting, and his final bow is a thing of beauty. Roder bears little physical resemblance to Barrymore, and his tights and tunic do little to add to his stature, but he very quickly melds himself with the larger than life character he portrays. His voice, timing, movement and projection make the most of a powerful (and powerfully funny) role, and the swordfight with Philip is played to the hilt.

Eric and Penny Lonergan’s set is lovely – appropriately elegant, Gothic, and thoroughly functional. Karen Roder and seamstress Pat Hill provide imaginative and evocative costumes, and Heather Sutherland’s lighting design is key in setting and changing the show’s moods.

It’s always risky to tackle a show that is a bit obscure, but the combination of a tightly crafted comic script and skillful production should make this gamble a winner for HART and local audiences.

I Hate Hamlet plays at Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) through Sunday, September 20th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.

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