Monday, August 11, 2008

I Hate Hamlet, Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet

(Lara Mielcarek as Felicia and Dede Klein as Lillian in I Hate Hamlet)

Rarely has a play title more accurately identified a commonly held feeling than I Hate Hamlet, especially if we can assume that Hamlet, in this construction, is used as a surrogate for all of Shakespeare’s work. All of us were tortured by the bard during high school field trips, and most still bear a lurking resentment for how one droning play or another ruined an otherwise promising day away from the classroom.

Of course, we all might have felt differently if we’d seen Shakespeare performed in a lively and accessible manner by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival. And we would certainly have had a dandy time at the purely comical I Hate Hamlet. Written by the bitchily incisive Paul Rudnick, this romp has more gag lines than any ten sitcoms, along with some clever theater in-jokes that almost everyone will understand and appreciate.

The paper-thin plot involves TV star Andrew Rally, who has agreed to play the lead role in Hamlet in an outdoor LA production. But he’s having anxiety attacks thinking about the daunting challenge ahead, along with the tension of having just moved into a house formerly occupied by the great Hamlet interpreter and unreconstructed lush, John Barrymore.

As he’s shown the digs by his real estate agent, Felicia, the subject of his impending play comes up and Felicia volunteers to summon the ghost of Barrymore through a séance. Eventually, the two are joined in the séance by Andrew’s girlfriend, the virginal Deirdre, and his agent Lillian, a chain-smoking woman of fierce Germanic mien.

Of course, the psychic hugger-mugger works and Barrymore appears, helpfully clad in his Hamlet costume. From there, it’s a learning process for Andrew as Barrymore instructs him on the fine points of acting the tragic Dane, down to taking advantage of displaying one’s junk in tights for maximum effect. Even Andrew’s director pal Gary shows up to offer his not-so-cogent advice.

Director Nancy Cates leads her fine cast through these amusing paces, keeping the pace bright and taut throughout. Daren Kelly shoulders the role of Barrymore with a confident swagger and a thirst for anything alcoholic and/or in skirts. Resisting the probably overwhelming urge to overact, Kelly is particularly hilarious when he instructs Andrew on how to use the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene to finally get into Deirdre’s pants.

As Andrew, Stephen Skiles seems every inch an average Joe, not an ego-driven TV celeb, and this tends to take a bit of the edge off the tension between his character and Barrymore. But you do find yourself rooting for this Andrew to somehow survive his encounter with “real” theater. Tess Burgler is sweet as Deirdre, and has some priceless reactions as she is wooed by the suddenly impassioned Andrew.

But some of the comic standouts in this show are actually in the minor roles. Dede Klein is a hoot as Lillian, hacking her smoker’s cough while growling a guttural German accent (“Don’t be so schmug!”). Scott Shriner seems as if he walked off HBO’s Entourage set as Gary, smarmily dispensing his shallow observations (he shrugs off all of Shakespeare’s work by saying, “It’s like algebra on stage.” And Lara Mielcarek is practically worth the ticket price herself as Felicia, assembling a daffy Long Island composite—picture Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob with a touch of the adorably dense Judy Holiday.

Even though there are no resonant themes to take home with you, there is plenty to love about this staging of I Hate Hamlet.

I Hate Hamlet
August 7 – 17
Produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at
Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens
714 N. Portage Path, Akron

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