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A HUMOROUS TAKE ON HAMLET HELPED ALONG BY A STELLAR CAST

Theater Review

"I Hate Hamlet," comedy by Paul Rudnick *** 1/2

William Shakespeare's masterpiece, "Hamlet," has been performed more than any other play ever written. It has inspired movies, operas and ballets, as well as spinoffs, spoofs and send-ups. There have been hippie and nude versions, cartoons, a spaghetti Western and much more theatrical foolishness over the centuries.

The words and actions of the enigmatic Danish Prince Hamlet and the goings-on inside Elsinore castle -- murder, revenge, allegiances real and bogus, conspiracies, visitors from the spirit world -- are difficult to describe. Then there's the Oedipal business. John Barrymore, America's greatest Hamlet, was asked if the prince really slept with Ophelia, his mother. "Only in the Chicago company," the Great Profile replied.

My favorite "Hamlet" analysis comes from an unlikely source: Wendy, the oldest daughter in Sir James Barrie's "Peter Pan." When asked by her brother to explain the story, Wendy gave this terse review: "Everybody dies."

Still, the fascination with Hamletology lives on, and a recent take on the plot and the play is Paul Rudnick's comedy, "I Hate Hamlet," a very modest hit on Broadway a dozen years ago and now a work settling into life in community and regional theaters and just now at the Kavinoky Theatre, the second play of its 25th season. Playwright Rudnick's portfolio is crammed with feathery, albeit funny, plays, lightweight stuff, stories with inventive premises that usually run out of steam halfway through the second act. Unfortunately, "I Hate Hamlet" is typical Rudnick: hilarious in spurts, with punch lines and asides worth waiting for from mismatched characters, fine physical comedy moments and then a mostly lame, disappointing, yawning finish with some of the above ingredients missing.

The story is this: Andrew Rally is a television sitcom actor of some repute, and his agent thinks that he should accept an offered role as Hamlet in an outdoor production in Central Park. Andy's girlfriend, Deirdre, is thrilled with the idea. Andy knows that he's not ready for Shakespeare, particularly the largest speaking role in the English language. "To be or not to be. . . ."? Forget about it.

A ditzy real estate broker finds Andy a new apartment, one that the great Barrymore once rented. The broker just happens to dabble in the paranormal and a quickly arranged seance summons Barrymore from the beyond to coach young Andy on the finer points of the Bard, not to mention how to maneuver in tights and a codpiece. Andy is still against accepting the challenge. He'd rather concentrate on how to finally seduce the virginal Deirdre; this is an everyday Andy quest.

Well, he does his "Hamlet." Andy is not a critical success, but he learns much about himself, thanks to Barrymore and his own perseverance. Deirdre beckons. Life is good.

Director Michael Koegel has set all of this in motion admirably; "I Hate Hamlet" actually comes off looking pretty good in his hands. Of course, a dream cast such as Michael Karr as Andy; David Lamb, reprising his role as John Barrymore; John Fredo; Anne Gayley; Lisa Ludwig; and Katie White doesn't hurt. Karr is awfully good, Everyman in leotards -- callow early on, life lessons learned later. Lamb doesn't overdo the larger-than-life Barrymore, a pleasant surprise, and he is at once self-knowing and majestic.

The others take turns stealing scenes: Fredo is terrific, Gayley always precise, Ludwig over-the-top but hilariously so, and the lithe White is sweet and funny. A great cast, wisely directed.

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