Acting always has a passle of do’s and don’t-you-ever’s. The rules build the cage within which the lion roars. Over the centuries and even over decades, the cage has shrunk. And it must be tempting for an actor, just once, to roar the bars down.
Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet has an outsized role not for any timid, faint of heart, huggers of the shore. And Ruff Yeager fills it with elan as John Barrymore.
Renowned for his portrayal of Hamlet (said to be the best of the 20th century, though John Gielgud’s 1936 version nabs many a vote), Barrymore was a colossus. “The Great Profile” went through four wives and, allegedly, a gallon of gin a day and a carton of cigarettes. He rose from doing light comedies to the pinnacle of Hamlet, then spiraled down, like an Icarus, into hammy self-parodies.
During a rehearsal for a radio program, in 1942, the 60-year-old Barrymore collapsed and uttered, “I guess this one time I miss my cue.” He died five days later.
I Hate Hamlet pits TV star Andrew Rally at a crossroads. For years, he played Dr. Jim Corman, “rookie surgeon” in the TV soap “L.A. Medical.” It got cancelled. Nationally recognized for Dr. Jim, and a commercial for a breakfast cereal, he can do a TV series, maybe go to Hollywood, or — should he so dare — play Hamlet in the park, not-for-profit, and stretch his skills with THE role.
Somehow he finds himself in John Barrymore’s former apartment: 132 West Fourth Street, New York. Somehow a real estate agent/spirit medium conjures up the Grand Master, and vwa-lah.
Is it the ghost of Barrymore? Even he’s not sure: “am I dead or just incredibly drunk?”
What follows is an often-silly but always-funny sitcom-tribute to Barrymore. It’s also a debate about true artistry versus crass commercialism — as when Rally’s agent, Gary Peter Leftkowitz, says: “You don’t do art, you buy it.”
Except for Barrymore’s majestic speech about artists, the script loses its way in Act two: rewards get doled out, punishments vanish, resolves resolve. But the first act of Intrepid Shakespeare’s production is so strong, by then the downslide’s easier to take.
Ruff Yeager’s first entrance is the kicker. The lights go out. The ghost draws near. When they come up, he’s Hamlet, perched on a low wall: black tights, black upper, golden sash, and he’s huge: physically (must be 6-foot-5 or even -6), and emotionally. Is this Hamlet or a power forward at SDSU?
Throughout Yeager makes Barrymore a mercurial blend of eloquence, self-importance, dissipation, drive, and most of all of style. By today’s rules, his speech and manners are over-the-top. But they are of a piece, consistently so, and done with remarkable fluidly. He looks and acts from another era, a far less repressed one, for that matter.
One by one, Barrymore yanks down the bars from Rally’s cage.
Francis Gercke does a fine turn as the Hamlet-hater. Rally’s as reigned in, and trembly neurotic, as Barrymore is sprawling and boundary-free. Their tandem work, with many a deft physical touch, is outstanding.
Director Christopher Williams has done his best work to date. It helps to have Kristin McReddie’s apt costumes, and Curtis Mueller’s subtle lighting. Tom Stephenson heads the capable supporting cast as Gary Peter Lefkowitz, Philistine extraordinaire. All he knows is the dotted line, and which to sign (for his sake). Stephenson makes Lefkowitz a ditzy, hilarious whirlwind.
Sean Yael-Cox’s black box, in-the-round set, has a neat touch. The audience sits in actual chairs, of different sorts and shapes, not seats. Barrymore may have appreciated this unregimented approach.