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Casting Andrew Rally as Hamlet is like asking a second-year med student to consult on a cerebrospinal bypass, whatever that is. Just as surgery is totally out of that kid’s league, Hamlet is verboten for this 28-year-old TV itinerant, whose hit series has just been canceled and whose medium is worlds apart from the legitimate stage. But in I Hate Hamlet, Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s current entry, playwright Paul Rudnick seems to assert that everything happens for a reason – ergo, Andrew “happens” to rent the iconic John Barrymore’s old place as he sets about to play the Prince of Denmark (a role for which the real-life Barrymore gained colossal fame) at a summerfest in New York’s Central Park.

The set-up becomes obvious when Andrew’s flaky real estate broker claims she can speak to the dead – the ghost of Barrymore, in life a legendary drinker and king of the sheets, will soon materialize, interjecting himself into Andrew’s training for one of the greatest roles in English literature. For some, Rudnick might show a tendency to back into his characters, and he’s rubber-stamped the bejesus out of the Barrymore clan’s troubled scion – but he’s got a lot of spirited dialogue to go with it all, and he has three veteran San Diego theater guys to help fuel this rambunctious dramedy.

Andrew Rally (Francis Gercke, left) weighs John Barrymore's (Ruff Yeager) wise counsel. Photo by Daren Scott.

Andrew Rally (Francis Gercke, left) weighs John Barrymore’s (Ruff Yeager) wise counsel. Photo by Daren Scott.

Andrew’s debut as Hamlet is an unmitigated flop, of course, which only goes to support his own observation about artistic integrity – he freely admits, to John and everybody else, that he doesn’t have the chops for the part and comes from the wrong side of the acting tracks in any case (as the star of soap opera Jim Corman, M.D., he knows he was out of his element from the beginning). Add his ravishing girlfriend Dierdre’s iron grip on her chastity and his initial misgivings about the apartment, and Andrew’s summer isn’t shaping up as the season it should be. Only when a Hollywood buddy offers him a role in a pilot (and an astronomical salary to boot) does Andrew push back – the situation forces him to choose between the prospect of money and fame and a life with Shakespeare, whom Dierdre adores.

Artistic honesty wins out, and Rudnick’s clever subplots get him to that point. Barrymore (Ruff Yeager) unexpectedly finds himself reunited with long-ago conquest Lillian Troy (Dagmar Fields), Andrew’s agent, replete with a life of her own (“Don’t ask me about ideas; I am German”). Dierdre (Brooke McCormick Paul) winds up playing the crazoid Ophelia in Andrew’s show. Idiot Hollywood gadabout Gary (Tom Stephenson) wouldn’t know theater if it bit him in the script (“You don’t do art; you buy it”).

John Barrymore made a career out of playing Hamlet, as this image from 1922 reflects. Public domain photo.

John Barrymore made a career out of playing Hamlet, as this image from 1922 reflects. Public domain photo.

The flip side is brought to bear as well. Ditzy broker Felicia Dantine (Gerilyn Brault) sets this whole thing in motion, her confabs with the departed fueling Barrymore’s apparition – but do we really need something as schlocky as a séance (one never reintroduced to boot) to create him? “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Hamlet tells his friend Horatio in the Shakespeare play, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy”; accordingly, Rudnick could have taken the appropriate cue and let Barrymore revisit us on his own, setting the stage for a much more nuanced character.

In any case, it was great to see Francis Gercke for the first time in what seems (at least to me) like an Elizabethan epoch. His Andrew is clever, confounded and spontaneous, and he underplays the final scenes to perfection (watch his face when Barrymore hilariously assures him that one day, “You will play indoors”). And do enjoy Stephenson’s Gary – such vapidness we haven’t seen since the younger Bush’s White House.

The unedited Hamlet is actually a little over five hours long in performance, and it’s a cinch Rudnick didn’t have that kind of Herculean task in mind for the displaced Andrew. Director Christopher Williams and his tech crew clearly understand that, helping create a kind of object lesson about art as agent rather than vehicle. It’s funny, it’s self-assured and, as the summer Shakespeare seasons gear up, it’s about time.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of June 29. I Hate Hamlet runs through July 19 at the San Dieguito Academy Performing Arts Center, 800 Santa Fe Drive in Encinitas. $25-$35. 760-652-5011, intrepidshakespeare.com.

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Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin, principal at editorial consultancy Words Are Not Enough and La Jolla Village News editor emeritus, has been a theater critic and editor/writer for 25 of his 47 years... More...

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