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TV or Not TV? 

A Comic Dilemma at NCRT

Several blocks from where a royal henchman cleverly castigates Shakespeare to his face in Redwood Curtain's Equivocation ("Unequivocal Success," Sept. 11), some contemporary Americans (and a distinguished ghost) are conflicted about the Bard in the 1991 comedy I Hate Hamlet, now onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

After the TV series that made him famous is cancelled, Andrew Rally (played by Evan Needham) rediscovers himself as an actor in New York. His agent (Gloria Montgomery) encourages him to audition for the title role in a Shakespeare in Central Park production of Hamlet, and he is cast.

His romantic and virginal new girlfriend (Jennifer Trustem) swoons for the Shakespearian hero she wants him to be. But he immediately has second thoughts, especially after his Hollywood director (Anders Carlson) brings him a deal for a network series about a crusading inner city teacher with superpowers. He can fly, "but only about 10 feet up. See, we're keeping it real."

All the action transpires in a vintage Manhattan apartment that Rally's real estate agent (Kristen Collins) has found for him. It just happens to be the former abode of actor John Barrymore, whose 1920s Hamlet became legendary. A seance summons Barrymore from the beyond to advise Rally on his own portrayal of the conflicted prince of Denmark.

Should he or shouldn't he? To be or not to be? TV or not TV? Does he hate Hamlet, or himself?

I Hate Hamlet is a comedy by Paul Rudnick, rich in jokes but with a bit more substance than it pretends to have. It is also awkwardly constructed, especially at the start. With all the set up, exposition and unfamiliar New York and German accents, the first act at NCRT wobbled gamely forward until Anders Carlson as the irrepressible Hollywood director infused the stage with comic energy. The character certainly provides it, with lines like: "Am I, like, the most self-obsessed person you've ever met? My answer? Yes."

The first act climaxes with a sword fight between the reluctant Rally and the buoyant Barrymore (choreographed by Jasper Anderton) that sparkles like the champagne Barrymore is simultaneously imbibing. Christian Litten is a lithe and athletic Barrymore, and even looks like the actor, especially in Laura Rhinehart's costume — a reproduction of Barrymore's Hamlet togs as seen in old photos.

Most of what the play says about Barrymore is historically accurate and relevant to Rally's dilemma. Barrymore was the theatrical equivalent of a sitcom actor until he triumphed as Hamlet on Broadway and, perhaps more impressively, in London. Then he left for Hollywood.

In portraying a stage legend, this show's 1991 Broadway production itself became legendary. The brilliant English actor (and former Hamlet) Nichol Williamson was increasingly erratic in his performance as Barrymore. In the sword fight one evening, he swatted costar Evan Handler in the back. Handler immediately exited the stage and kept on going, out of the theatre and out of the play forever.

Director David Moore and cast seem to have elected to do a fairly subdued version of this sometimes raucously produced play. That choice allows for more human feeling in the Barrymore-Rally scenes in the second act, in which Needham and Litten excel. Gloria Montgomery also delivers a moving set piece in Act II.

On opening night, some comic timing and delivery wasn't yet sharp, a not uncommon occurrence. There seems to be more potential in the script for vocalizing (and projecting) some lusciously comic lines. Fortunately there are three more weekends in the run to discover such opportunities and possibly make a funny show funnier.

Calder Johnson is scenic designer, Telfer Reynolds designed lighting, Michael Thomas the sound, Laura Rhinehart is in charge of properties as well as costumes. I Hate Hamlet is performed weekends at NCRT through Oct. 11. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.

Coming Up in October:

The 2010 musical comedy The Addams Family is scheduled to open at Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Oct. 3. With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, it is based on the ghoulish characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams. 786-5483, www.ferndalerep.org.

Humboldt State University presents a radio-style reading of Her Own Way by Broadway playwright Clyde Fitch, the first play performed at HSU 100 years ago, on Friday evening, Oct. 3, and Saturday afternoon, Oct. 4, in the Van Duzer Theatre. Then, on Oct. 16, HSU opens Coraline, the musical version of Neil Gaiman's horror/fantasy novella. 826-3928, HSUStage.blogspot.com.

On Oct. 30, Redwood Curtain opens Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Peggy Metzger. 443-7688, www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Offstage: On Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. at Northtown Books, the principal creators of the 2006 community-based production Salmon is Everything including Suzanne Burcell and Kathy McCovey (both Karuk), Theresa May and Jean O'Hara — discuss their new book about the process.

Finally, my apology for neglecting to mention Dmitry Tokarsky among the other excellent performers in my review of Equivocation at Redwood Curtain. Others who attend the show may agree that we'll never see Lady Macbeth in quite the same way again.

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