There are rumors of a curse when it comes to Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet. During the play's initial run of 88 performances back in 1991, Nicol Williamson—an accomplished Shakespearean performer who continues to be held in great regard—reportedly became increasingly abusive to his fellow cast members. He was playing the ghost of John Barrymore, the legendary matinee idol. As the rumor goes, Williamson arrived one evening in a particularly foul mood and, during the duel between his character and Andrew Rally (played by Evan Handler), Williamson smacked a sword right across Handler's back. Handler immediately left the stage and, consequently, the production. With little fanfare, the show closed 11 weeks into its run.
As with all rumors and curses, truths tend to be overwhelmed by myth, but in previous productions of the play, I have seen where such myths gain power. When I learned of the Tennessee Stage Company's choice to take on this curse with their Timeless Work Series, I was concerned that yet again, good actors were going to make poor decisions.
And it wouldn't be completely their fault. The overly glib script opens up the possibility of grandiose hackery like Williamson's. In the play, Rally, a television actor, is manipulated into taking on the challenge of Hamlet. His girlfriend, Dierdre, a twentysomething virgin who seems always on the verge of an orgasm, is enthralled with the possibility of dating—although not sleeping with—the star of Central Park's outdoor performance of the play. Andrew's agent, Lillian, a chain-smoking old German, thinks that, with the cancellation of Rally's prime-time series, playing Hamlet is all he needs to push forward in bigger and better ways. His friend, the Los Angeles producer Gary, thinks it's all a bunch of crap, and his realtor, Felicia, could care less as long as Rally buys the apartment he's looking at, once owned by John Barrymore. To buck up Rally's courage, Felicia leads a seance, and bam! In walks John Barrymore himself, sent back to coach Rally in the nuances of the dour Dane.
Funny premise. But Paul Rudnick's writing creates such a vacuum between the two leads that any actor attempting to play the late, great John Barrymore would have to pack his ego into a tin lunch box and bury it in a time capsule to be opened 100 years from the final curtain call. Other actors apparently could not. Instead of a sugary evening of zingers, witticisms, and guffaws, the performances have typically been nothing more than two hours of exuberant scenery chewing. I've seen other Barrymores and other Rallys—to be blunt, Andrew is a character whose chutzpah couldn't fill even a child's codpiece—flop and moan and flip and falter back and forth across the stage.
So yes, I have issues. And yes, I hate the script of I Hate Hamlet.
Yet the uncanny occurred during the Tennessee Stage Company's production, a truly wonderful and enjoyable act I have never witnessed in this play. Tom Parkhill's Barrymore did something so simple and perfect that I was left wondering why, until now, I had never seen it. In short, he listened. He paid attention to his fellow cast members, which allowed them to deliver their hysterical lines in an aptly paced piece of comedic glory. I kid you not—I think one audience member might have peed a little.
Jenny Ballard's direction was sound. There were a few blocking issues in the initial scene—Sean Deitz' Andrew was distracting as he picked through his boxes—but even with this forgetful glitch, the staging allowed for focus where focus was due. Dietz handled his difficult duty as the whining straight man well. His hemming and hawing meshed well with the archetypal clarity of the other characters. Jennifer Osborn's Dierdre was one part waif and two parts sex kitten. Kenneth Mayfield's take on the producer Gary made Tom Cruise's character in Tropic Thunder seem almost approachable—best running-man dance move ever. I was a little confused by Carrie Booher's Felicia, especially during the seance. Did Felicia believe it was real or was it just a way to close the deal? Jennifer Alldredge was splendid as Lillian. Her line, "Don't ask me about great ideas. I'm German," was so simply delivered that the audience rolled.
Other than the script, the venue was the only other real issue. The stage was cramped, making the sword fight leading to the finale of the first act more dangerous than necessary. However, the Children's Theatre of Knoxville's new space on Tyson Street, near Old Gray Cemetery, should allow ample space for smaller productions.
The Tennessee Stage Company deserves great applause for proving that not only is there great theater in Knoxville, there's great talent making even the deepest of doubters realize that, even though they may hate enjoying I Hate Hamlet, enjoy it they will.