When attending a show whose premise is a “play within a play,” look around. All of those audience members who are cracking up at things that are going right over your head are theatre people, the term given to anyone who would spend their days, nights and eternity in a theatre. The challenge for any director is to create a show that honors those inside jokes while appealing to the masses. This Spotlighters Theatre production of I Hate Hamlet does this best when a few of their finest actors take the stage.
Thomas Bowers plays up-and-coming TV star Andrew Rally, whose agent has convinced him to play Hamlet in New York City’s annual Shakespeare production in the park. The title of the play gives away how Rally feels about this, which is the basis for the should I/shouldn’t I indecision that wracks him during all of Act I. Real estate agent Felicia Dantine (played with zesty fanaticism by Shanelle Fontaine), who one imagines spends her downtime skulking around celebrity homes to catch just a glimpse of a shirt sleeve, is overjoyed to show Andrew the apartment of the late John Barrymore, whose Hamlet many years earlier became the standard others hoped to meet. He balks and snarls, but eventually gives in when his agent, Lillian Troy (more on the amazing Suzanne Young later) pushes him to stay – her ulterior motive being that she wants to be inside Barrymore’s apartment again, years after their passionate affair. Rally’s other motivation is his girlfriend, Deirdre McDavey (Katrina Jackson), Andrew’s virginal girlfriend who is saving herself for marriage. She is as feminine and pure as an untouched Greek goddess, and happens to get hot and bothered over long-dead Shakespearean actors.
One seance later (during which Fontaine acts as hilarious medium), so begins the Andrew/Barrymore pairing, with new versus old, green versus seasoned, fame versus art, and alive versus dead.
Three of the actors are standouts. Thom Eric Sinn plays the ghost of legendary actor, ladies’ man and alcoholic John Barrymore. He is not physically reminiscent of Barrymore, but one would be hard-pressed to find a lookalike who could top Sinn’s layered, sensual, frustrated portrayal of the late actor. He walks and talks like a Shakespearean actor making a big comeback who doesn’t want to take off his costume and go back to being a flawed human being. Sinn’s comic timing, natural delivery, and velvety smooth baritone voice make a very hard job look easy. If one tried to find a moment of inauthenticity in his performance, he/she would lose the bet.
Jon Ingretson as Gary Peter Lefkowitz, Rally’s coattail rider, shoots energy out of every limb, his eyeballs protruding with each pelvic tilt. His portrayal of a quintessential Hollywood wannabe who makes everything seem like BIG TIME conjures up images of The Fonz, Kramer, and Johnny Fever, a trifecta of three-dimensional sitcom icons. Ingretson’s Lefkowitz is at once slimy, hilarious, dumbfounded and generous. One can imagine that he is a director’s dream. His genuine wonderment at why anyone would do Shakespeare is summed up by one of his funniest one-liners, “Shakespeare, it’s like algebra on stage.”
Suzanne Young as German talent agent Lillian Troy plays every beat perfectly, without question. She has so many one-liners that she spits out of her smirking mouth in a gorgeous blend of acerbity and self-amusement. One of the myriad examples is, when asked if she has any ideas about something or other, Lillian snarks, “Don’t ask me about great ideas, I’m German.” There is a reference to her failing health, a position Lillian denies, and Young thankfully does not milk this element of her character. Lillian is someone who doesn’t want to face death so she simply doesn’t – until she reunites with Barrymore in his apartment. This is the best scene in the play for many reasons, not the least of which is the authenticity that Young and Sinn exude as long parted lovers. These two are so genuine and compelling, and could command a stage for two hours on their own.
Bowers as Andrew has a tough job, which is to play an actor playing a character. That is a challenge for the most seasoned of actors, and proves to be so for Bowers, as well. He shows some promise, as evidenced when he gets caught up in moments, like listening as Barrymore scolds him for being superficial, or doing his goofy, unsuccessful warm-up exercises. He hits the mark in certain areas, especially when fighting with Barrymore. Bowers tends to stand and move stiffly, as if he doesn’t quite know what to do with his body as Rally. With four weekends of performances, Bowers will surely grow and let go of his inhibitions, just as his Rally does by the show’s conclusion.
Spotlighters Theatre has been in their converted restaurant space for almost 60 years, valiantly creating shows on a stage that is reminiscent of a gothic boxing ring. Set designer Alan Zemla knows this space intimately and uses every nook and cranny to create the environment. His set painting adds the proper temperature to the ghostly Barrymore apartment, and his stone fireplace and columns lend great authenticity to the setting. Props go to the props masters Hillary Glass and Mary Pohlig, whose attention to detail make for a fun, ’90s setting. The intercom even has a red light that flicks on and off every time someone is buzzed in. The cordless phone is perfectly awkward and clunky, like talking into a Barbie’s coffin, which is exactly how it felt back in the olden days of grunge.
Lighting Designer Al Ramer uses the four-square to his full advantage and thus never leaves anyone in the backlight, and Sound Designer Richard Atha-Nicholls’s fuzzy intercom voices and thunderclaps were spot-on. Hillary Glass has a knack for design, including costuming, which she nailed with her choices of color, style, and appropriateness. Her choice of a zebra belt for Ingretson’s Lefkowitz is sure to go viral. Hats off to Fuzz Roark for his special effects and Brad Norris’ fight choreography, which should get smoother with each performance.
I Hate Hamlet is a witty, farcical comedy with the aforementioned outstanding performances making it worth the price of admission.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
I Hate Hamlet plays February 9 – March 4, 2018, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, at Spotlighters Theatre – 817 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.