What a piece of work is Hamlet. How evergreen. How ripe for appropriation and parody. Aye, there's the rub. Will Memphis theater audiences be over Shakespeare's original man in black when the curtain rises on New Moon Theatre's February production? That may not be the question, but given all the Hamlet-related shows we're seeing this season, it's one worth asking. Or will productions of shows like The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and One Ham Manlet whet appetites for the real, complete thing?
Paul Rudnick's light comedy I Hate Hamlet is Germantown Community Theatre's contribution to Hamletpalooza, and it sure is a mixed fardel. Rudnick's script is a bumpy muddle of real-estate gags, sitcom hijinks, and splendid set pieces about celebrity, passion, immortality, and tight pants. An uncommonly engaging cast pulls it all together and keeps spirits high, even when the writing threatens to let everybody down.
So, who hates Hamlet? Andrew Rally, that's who. He's the smoking-hot hunk star of a recently cancelled TV show called L.A. Medical. He also co-stars with a sock puppet in a heavy-rotation commercial for some sugary breakfast cereal with more calories than lard. But is he an actor?
To answer that question, Rally moves from the Left Coast to a New York brownstone formerly occupied by a famous actor from Hollywood's golden age. He's tentatively accepted the title role in a free Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet, and boy, does he regret every bit of it. Enter the drunken glory-obsessed ghost of John Barrymore, lush, womanizer, hot mess, and the greatest Hamlet of his generation. What follows is a quirky mashup of Blithe Spirit and My Favorite Year, and watching Rally and Barrymore fence and fuss their way through a mutual identity crisis is great fun. It might be even more fun without all the melodramatic subplots, each one worthy of the trash Barrymore played on Broadway, back when he was a big-time matinee idol.
Enter the stock players. Deirdre is Rally's girlfriend. She's a 29-year-old virgin who's saving herself for both the right man and the right moment. She also has an Ophelia fetish that's weird and not very believable. Rally's main super-bro Gary is a self-motivated "writer-producer-director" who thinks Shakespeare's "like algebra on stage." He has a big career opportunity in the works because, of course, he always does. Lillian, Rally's agent, is an elderly German immigrant who lost a hairpin while having an ill-advised fling with Barrymore, back when she was young and he was loaded and lost. Felicia's the clairvoyant real-estate agent who sets the old-fashioned farce in motion.
Ashley Trevathan is terrific as Felicia. In her own, self-parodying words, she "wins." She's not alone, either. Evan McCarley is deliciously shallow and smarmy as Gary. With eyes that bat and roll like a siren of the silent screen, Rae Boller's Deidre charms her way through the play's clunkiest lines, while Louise Levin makes Lillian's last dance — aka the show's most contrived moment — into something incredibly human and almost sexy. But I Hate Hamlet only ever soars when Gabe Beutel-Gunn and John Moore are on stage together as Rally and Barrymore. It's their show, and both actors just go for it.
I've never seen Moore as alive as he is when he's inhabiting the drunk, horny, undead corpse of John Barrymore. Moore stumbles across the stage with great determination and bounds through the air, saber in hand, playing to the cheap seats every chance he gets. His character may talk about the value of filling out the tights, but Moore's performance is a lesson in filling the room. As Rally, Beutel-Gunn plays the straight man and earns his ridiculous bow.
It seems silly to write it down, but tastes have changed quite a bit since John Barrymore's days on the Great White Way. There's not much room in the modern theater for the kind of disposable material I Hate Hamlet aspires to. Jokes fall flat. Characters annoy. But just when it feels like the play's about to devolve into a live action version Three's Company, Rudnick's comedy — aided by director John Maness and a terrific ensemble — taps into something genuinely Shakespearian.