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Buy 'I Hate Hamlet' by Paul Rudnick.


Rapier Wits: John Barrymore's ghost (Kevin Blackton, right) gives Andrew Rally (Bill Olson) acting lessons in 'I Hate Hamlet.'

Dane of His Existence

A reluctant actor tackles the Bard's greatest role in 'I Hate Hamlet' at San Jose Stage Company

By Richard von Busack

BESIDES BEING a prince and an uncle killer, Hamlet is a stage-struck kid. That satirical rogue Paul Rudnick harmonizes with the intentions of Hamlet even in a play that claims loathing. Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet concerns Andrew Rally, an agreeably lightweight actor given a choice between a West Coast success and playing Hamlet for Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park.

He's dragged into the more challenging work kicking and screaming--just as so many students are hauled into seeing The Tragedy of Hamlet. Luckily, Rally's new Manhattan flat is haunted by the ghost of the actor John Barrymore, ready to give acting tips to the young thespian.

Barrymore (1882-1942) is chiefly remembered today as Drew's grandfather. The charming Drew looks very much like him; she inherited the profile that's been liquefying audiences for 100 years, as well as that appealing dissipated quality that kept the Barrymores from being too royal. In his time, Barrymore was considered the monarch of American Shakespearean actors, renowned for the feat of playing Hamlet 101 nights in a row.

Randall King, artistic director at San Jose Stage Company, is staging I Hate Hamlet after 20 years and more than 100 plays.

King's never played Hamlet himself. "I'm drawn to walking wounded parts, heavies," he says. "I never saw myself as a gloomy Dane. My focus has been modern American theater, though I do get the urge to do Shakespeare: Iago, Richard III ..."

It was John Barrymore's older brother, Lionel--cranky old Potter the banker in It's a Wonderful Life--who's credited as saying, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." King agrees: "It's hard to get an audience to laugh, [it's] more technical. We worked hard to have realistic humor here and to try choreograph the audience's laughter."

Famous as a tragedian, Barrymore was actually at his best onscreen in comedies. As seen in 1934's Twentieth Century, Barrymore was perfectly capable of humor: a too-serious Hamlet is deadly, since the man is a mean, jabbing jokester. Toward the end of his career, Barrymore drank hard and didn't care who knew it. He had cause, being forced to squeeze his paunch into a doublet as a 52-year-old Mercutio, supporting a Romeo (Lesley Howard).

"Barrymore is legendary not just as an actor for his 101 consecutive performances of Hamlet," King says, "but also because of his great potential, which he squandered. I'd compare Barrymore to Jack Nicholson. Nothing he can do can upset us. We'd forgive him anything. There's a line in I Hate Hamlet that sums it up: "Actors, I love 'em.'"

Funny as it is, Rudnick's play is building on the theatrical-critic commentary in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Act 2 is full of acting tips, as well as gossip about the drama of the time. Hamlet grouses about how there's no respect for the greats. He and Rosencrantz yak about how adorable child actors are the latest thing on the English stage. Hamlet foresees the Former Child Actor Syndrome even back in 1600. (They're cute when they're little, but when they get big they have to be flushed down the toilet.)

Hamlet even has energy to snap at crass old Polonious about his lack of taste in theater. When the old man complains of a speech that "it's too long," Hamlet denounces him as the kind of dolt who slumbers if the show doesn't have dancing or scantily clad babes in it: "He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps."

I Hate Hamlet is connected with the upcoming Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of Hamlet, with a discount for those who see both. Either play functions as an anecdote to the other, and both celebrate the art of acting.

I Hate Hamlet, a San Jose Stage Company Production, previews June 4-6 at 8pm, opens June 7 at 8pm and plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 29 at San Jose Stage Company, 410 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $16-$36. (408.283.7142)

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From the June 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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