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Vancouver theater company stages ‘I Hate Hamlet’

A living actor and a dead one cross swords over Shakespeare’s greatest role

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published:
4 Photos
Heather Blackthorn photo You never know what you’re going to unleash during a seance. Jennifer Johnson (left), Kelli Williams, Brett Farnsworth (as the TV actor challenged to play Hamlet) and Demarie Day star in “I Hate Hamlet,” which opens Friday at the Hampton Inn and Suites in east Vancouver.
Heather Blackthorn photo You never know what you’re going to unleash during a seance. Jennifer Johnson (left), Kelli Williams, Brett Farnsworth (as the TV actor challenged to play Hamlet) and Demarie Day star in “I Hate Hamlet,” which opens Friday at the Hampton Inn and Suites in east Vancouver. photos by Heather Blackthorn Photo Gallery

Such a typical teenager, that poor Prince of Denmark. So confused and angsty. So emotive and explosive. Hamlet is such a drama queen!

Not that he doesn’t have good reason. His uncle murdered the King, Hamlet’s father, and married the Queen, Hamlet’s mother. Worst of all, Queen Mom was happy to oblige. All of which either drives Hamlet mad — or drives him to pretend that he’s mad. Or some ambiguous blend of the two. Literary critics have been debating that riddle ever since William Shakespeare penned “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” circa 1600.

“He’s so sad. Everybody knows he’s so sad. We’ve been listening to his lament for 400 years. It’s the best lamenting that’s ever been written down, ever,” said Heather Blackthorn, who recently revived a long-dormant theater company, Pacific Stageworks, in Vancouver.

“I love ‘Hamlet,’ but I know there are people who are like, ‘Do I have to sit through all that lamenting again, or can I just kill myself now?'” Blackthorn laughed. That’s why the title “I Hate Hamlet” jumped right out at her as she was hunting for a follow-up to Pacific Stageworks’ relaunch presentation last fall, Neil Simon’s “Rumours.”

She thought “I Hate Hamlet” was hilarious, she said, and based on an irresistible true tidbit as well. In 1917, actor John Barrymore moved into a New York City apartment and began a run as Hamlet that earned accolades like “greatest living American tragedian.” Barrymore (the grandfather of Drew Barrymore) was a famously troubled and alcoholic man whose star faded after he tried jumping from stage to screen. He died in 1942.

If You Go

What: “I Hate Hamlet,” by Paul Rudnick, directed by Tony Bump.

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Feb. 8-9; 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 10. 

Where: Hampton Inn and Suites, 315 S.E. Olympia Drive, Vancouver.

Cost: $17; $15 for seniors/military.

On the web: www.pacificstageworks.org/

In the late 1980s, playwright Paul Rudnick moved into the very same New York flat and felt moved to write something about the site and its former occupant. He created a nervous TV star named Andrew Rally, who is preparing to play the world’s moodiest, most aggrieved teenager for a “Shakespeare in the Park” production.

One problem: Rally really hates Hamlet. Maybe that’s because he doubts he can manage the deep, demanding role. “He thinks it’s over his head, and it well might be,” said Tony Bump, the director of this show and one of the founders of Pacific Stageworks.

Bigger problem: The ghost of John Barrymore, who handled the role like a champ, appears in the apartment and won’t take no for an answer. Because of that, and because Rally really wants to impress his girlfriend, he accepts the challenge despite his insecurity. But what will he do about an offer to abandon all that and take on an easier, more familiar task — an overpaid, under-challenging TV show?

Because it’s based on a real Shakespeare masterpiece, “I Hate Hamlet” contains a true Shakespearean element: a sword duel. In this case, it’s between a hapless living actor and the overexcited ghost of a dead one.

Here’s the best true tidbit of all. Showbiz insiders still talk about an early incident during the Broadway run of “I Hate Hamlet,” in 1991, when actor Nicol Williamson, as the ghost of Barrymore, struck co-star Evan Handler with his sword. Handler wasn’t wounded, but he could easily have been; he stalked offstage in the middle of the scene and never returned.

Playwright Rudnick later wrote in The New Yorker magazine that Handler was right to quit, and that Williamson’s unpredictable, uncontrollable behavior had been leading up to the this. (Williamson died in 2011; Handler went on to many TV roles, including “Sex in the City” and “Californication.”)

Don’t expect anything nearly so dangerous at Vancouver’s “I Hate Hamlet,” Blackthorn laughed. “Yes there is a little sword fight, yes there are sharpy, pointy things.” Actor Brett Farnsworth, who has fencing training, has carefully coached and choreographed the swordfight scene, Blackthorn said.

“Nobody’s going to get stabbed in our production,” she promised.

Runway style, Broadway style

Given the dearth of performance stages in Vancouver, Blackthorn said, she’s thrilled to have gotten a nice deal on a banquet room at the Hampton Inn and Suites hotel in East Vancouver. That is Pacific Stageworks’ stage for now, she said.

“They’ve never done anything like this before, but they were willing to take a chance,” Blackthorn said.

Because it’s a long, narrow room, the audience sits on both sides of a “runway-style” staging, she said. “The movement is more naturalistic and it’s fun to be so close to the audience,” Bump said.

Also, Blackthorn added, Pacific Stageworks is offering a “Broadway-style” workout session that’s aimed at stoking your fantasies of dancing on stage — without actually daring you to do it. There’s no public performance at the end of Pacific Stageworks’ “Body By Broadway” classes, she said; they’re just an opportunity to learn some choreography for fun and fitness.

“Body by Broadway” isn’t held at the Hampton Inn — it’s at a nearby yoga studio, every other Sunday night at 6 p.m. (upcoming dates are Sunday and Feb. 17). Check the Pacific Stageworks website for details. The price is $15 per class; February’s curriculum is “A Bushel and a Peck” from “Guys and Dolls.”

All abilities, including people like Blackthorn — “a terrible dancer” with a rich fantasy life, she joked — are completely welcome. “Body by Broadway” is aimed at people “who know they’ll never dance in a Broadway play but still cannot stop thinking, ‘I want to dance in a Broadway play’,” she said.

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