By Philip Pearce
I SUSPECT there are PhD studies of ghost fiction, but has anyone given scholarly attention to stage ghosts? Barrie wrote them weird and wistful before Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit proved they could be funny. One of the best of the comic ghost genre is I Hate Hamlet, now on view in a fast and hilarious Listening Place staged reading at the Monterey Art Museum and the Salinas Steinbeck Center.
Directed by the resourceful Linda Hancock, six sharp and savvy comic actors flesh out Paul Rudnick’s ironic look at how a television superstar trains himself to portray Shakespeare’s tragic hero coached by the ghost of John Barrymore.
Flashing a scarlet-lined black cloak and sneaking bottled booze from the hinged top of a world globe is Jeffrey T. Heyer, incisive, flamboyant and as wonderful as ever in the role of the Barrymore wraith.
As his reluctant pupil Andrew Rally, fresh from success in a major TV miniseries, Christopher Sullinger is young and hopeful and never once overpowered by the redoubtable Heyer. Their verbal thrusts and parries at one point escalate into a ludicrous stage sword battle. It starts scary enough, but they eventually hand the real weapons to front row spectators to complete their conflict in mime in the interest of safety.
Listening Place veteran ingénue Kalyn Shubnell has never been better than she is in the role of Andrew’s dreamy-eyed romantic girlfriend Deirdre McDavey. She is just as reluctant as Andrew, but not about his prospects as Hamlet. Determinedly virginal, Deirdre can’t decide whether or not to go to bed with the guy. Shubnell is especially funny in her second act entrance, all moonbeams and fairy dust, festooned with fantastic garlands left over from her appearance as one of Ophelia’s ladies in waiting.
Anne Mitchell, clanking with costume jewelry and stuffed full of smarmy Manhattan Island salesmanship, is a delight as Felicia Dantine, the psychic realtor who has just sold Andrew the New York brownstone apartment once occupied by Barrymore. A major joke is the way Felicia continues to regret that the séance she organizes in the first act has failed to materialize Barrymore even as his ghost moves around, ogles her cleavage, nuzzles her neck.
Then there are seasoned actors Pat Horsley nordically theatrical as an old flame of the late Barrymore’s named Lillian Troy, and Robert Colter who arrives full of filmland flim-flam as Andrew’s exuberant TV director Gary Peter Lefkowitz.
It’s a cast that knows that farce demands a high energy, which is a major virtue but also an occasional weakness of this production. Farce also demands an astute sprinkling of contrast and shading, and that sometimes gets lost in all the headlong hilarity.
A case in point is the entrance of Colter as the last of author Rudnick’s lovable eccentrics to put in an appearance. As written, Lefkowitz is surely meant to explode on the scene like a skyrocket and Colter gives him the requisite fast-paced staccato energy. The trouble is, everyone else is also so busy exploding like skyrockets that, instead of being a new solo act Colter just slips in as another voice in the high energy chorus.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the fast pace and high noise level of most of the show. But the two high points of the afternoon, in my view, were actually moments where director Hancock and the players went soft and intimate and wonderfully real.
The first is a sequence where Heyer and Horsley (see photo above) return to the wonder and joy of their long-ago love affair, tease and woo each other deliciously, then end in a dream dance. It’s a segment beautifully realized by two veteran performers who know their craft and create a pause in the headlong action that becomes a moment of magic.
My second favorite moment is Sullinger’s second act description of how, wedged in between the long stretches of his stumbling performance as Hamlet, he has spotted a young audience member who is suddenly rapt and enchanted by the momentary truth of Andrew Rally’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
On Saturday, I Hate Hamlet moves to the Steinbeck Center, starting at 2 p.m., then returns to the Monterey Museum of Art for a final performance at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.