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'I Hate Hamlet' a fun over-the-top romp

Offered as an amusing comment on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 75th anniversary production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Camelot Theatre Company is presenting "I Hate Hamlet," Paul Rudnick's loving, fluffy ode to the play and to actors everywhere who yearn to perform the doomed Danish prince.

Rudnick came up with the idea when he actually rented an apartment in New York that once had been home to John Barrymore in 1917. (Yes, there are still many really old, repeatedly renovated apartments all over New York.) Rudnick wondered what Barrymore would say to today's actor's dilemma: the joy of performing live and underpaid theater versus the easy money of undemanding but wildly popular television sitcoms.

Since Barrymore gleefully abandoned the stage for fame and fortune in Hollywood in the 1930s, doing a few good movies ("Dinner at Eight" and "Grand Hotel") and a lot of really dreadful ones, the play's homage to The Theatre is somewhat misplaced.

In "I Hate Hamlet," sitcom actor Andrew Rally (Dayvin Turchiano) has moved to New York after cancellation of his successful series and has landed the lead in "Hamlet" in producer Joe Papp's "Shakespeare in the Park" series. Andrew, quite sensibly, is terrified. Hamlet? In front of all those people? Live, night after night?

His real estate agent, Felicia (Jade Watt), offers to conjure up a previous apartment resident, John Barrymore (Don Matthews). Rally's talent agent Lillian (Judith Rosen) concurs. The séance doesn't work but the sound of a champagne cork popping does the trick. An inebriated Barrymore appears as Hamlet, dressed in full costume, tights and all. His challenge is to guide Andrew through the role.

As directed by Camelot's Producing Director Doug Warner, "I Hate Hamlet" is all-out screwball comedy, just a bit beyond suspension of disbelief. Warner wanted this broad and outrageous, taking Rudnick's quirky plot and amplifying the absurdities.

Along with star-struck Felicia and the canny, elderly Lillian, there is Andrew's ditzy, wannabe actress girlfriend, Deirdre (Tai Sammons), who is a 29-year-old virgin holding out for a "hero."

Andrew also has a Hollywood-caricature, wheeling-dealing producer friend Gary (Roy Rains), who has pitched a really awful series idea on the strength of Andrew's popularity and gotten a network commitment. Now Gary needs Andrew to actually sign on, or the deal and the money are gone.

If you can believe that a successful heartthrob actor will pass up a guaranteed series deal and also put up with five months of celibacy, you will have absolutely no trouble believing in Barrymore's ghost. And I also have a bridge I'd like to sell you in Brooklyn.

Will Andrew rise to the occasion and give the performance of his life? Will Deirdre succumb? Will Barrymore remember his one-night stand with Lillian in that same apartment? Will Gary close the deal? Thanks to Warner's enthusiastic direction, of course "all's well that ends well." (Ahem.)

Warner — and Camelot Theatre — have a real find in Dayvin Turchiano. A veteran of some of the best productions by Oregon Stage Works, he is an accomplished actor and comedian and charmingly good-looking, too.

Camelot veterans such as Matthews, Watts, Sammons, Rains and Rosen romp through their over-the-top roles and seem like they are having fun as well.

Resident set designer Donald Zastoupil has created a properly gothic brownstone apartment, aided by lighting designer Bart Grady and sound and video designer Brian O'Connor. Barbara Rains has done some subtly hilarious costuming, especially riffing on Deirdre's fetish with Ophelia and Barrymore's swooshing prince. Kristen Mun did a lovely job of choreographing the athletic swordplay.

An interesting note about the original production: "I Hate Hamlet" opened on Broadway on April 8, 1991, and closed a little more than two months later, on June 22. It starred sitcom actor Evan Handler as Andy and an increasingly erratic Nicol Williamson as Barrymore. During a performance on May 3, Handler walked offstage and quit the show in the middle of Act I after Williamson kept taunting him and finally actually struck him during the fencing scene. Handler's understudy took over the role for the rest of the brief run.

"I Hate Hamlet" plays at Camelot Theatre through Sept. 12, 2010. For more information, call 541-535-5250.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.