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2nd Star Productions’ I Hate Hamlet

You’ll get feeling as well as fun in this play on why actors do what they do

The quality that 2nd Star Productions brings to its big musical productions is exemplified not only by sold out houses but also by recognition among its peers. 2nd Star last month received 21 nominations from the Washington Area Theater Community Honors, a local collaborative of amateur theaters that judge each other’s shows and present awards in March.

Only one of those nominations is for a non-musical, A Soldier’s Story. The majority were for the highly acclaimed Hello Dolly and Children of Eden.

2nd Star’s range is illustrated by its nonmusicals, as evidenced by that dramatic A Soldier’s Story, and more recently the intense and well-acted 12 Angry Men.

Now, on the other end of that spectrum, comes the comedy farce I Hate Hamlet.

The plot: Andy Rally (Zak Zeeks), a young, successful TV actor, comes to New York from Los Angeles after his hit show has been canceled. He rents a large, gothic apartment from real estate agent Felicia (Nicole Mullins). The apartment was once occupied by famed actor, womanizer and drunk John Barrymore (Fred Nelson).

Andy isn’t too high on his agent Lillian’s (Carole Long) offer for him to play Hamlet in a Shakespeare in the Park production. He’s even less enthralled with his girlfriend Deidre’s (Malarie Novotny) determination to stay chaste until they are married. He’s tempted by his Hollywood buddy Gary’s (Daniel Douek) offer of millions to give up the New York theater life and do a TV pilot.

Where to turn for guidance? And for a damned good sword fight?

Barrymore himself, of course. As the ghost of Barrymore, not exactly alive but still very much kicking as he haunts his old digs, Fred Nelson stalks the stage with the intimidation of a star so macho that even his black tights strain against the testosterone. From his fluid physicality to his well-modulated voice, Nelson brings us a Barrymore who, for all his weaknesses in life, demonstrates a genuine passion for the stage and a compassion for those charged with playing the character many consider Shakespeare’s most difficult role.

As Barrymore cajoles and convinces Andy to take on Hamlet, he also comes to grips with lost love in the form of Lillian, with whom he had a fling back in the day. A highlight of this show is the tender and funny scene between the two as they dance, quietly, in the dark and come close to rekindling that youthful lust. Long and Nelson are two fine actors. Their ability to take a fast-paced farce on a brief detour of affection is a fine lesson in the less is more school of thespianship.

That’s a school that Zeeks as Andy seemed to graduate from as the second act rolled around. His first act of too-punched punch lines and overwrought volume eased into a more nuanced second act that offered a much clearer window into his character. Perhaps it was opening-night excitement, and as the run progresses the talented Zeeks will ease more comfortably into the role and reject the temptation to force things. He’s got the character right; he just needs to share Andy with the audience rather than hit us over the head with him.

Director John Wakefield keeps the pace moving at a good clip, though he could have reined in some unnecessary mugging. Nowhere in the script — though it’s been a long time since I’ve read it — do I recall a strange accent indicated for the character of Gary. Douek is funny in the role and has wonderful stage presence, but too many of his lines are lost as the audience strains to understand this unidentifiable dialect.

As always, Jane Wingard’s set design is a winner. Along with Garrett Hyde’s lighting, it invites us to settle in for an evening at Barrymore’s. Mary Wakefield’s costuming of Barrymore is spot on, though the bunny slippers on city girl Deidre were a cheap-laugh-seeking misstep.

Quibbles aside, I Hate Hamlet is a funny, fast-paced and at times warm look at why actors do what they do. Thanks to Nelson’s mastery of the stage and his keen sense of when to envelop the audience and his cast mates in broad theatricality and when to simply tell a story, we’re treated to a farce that has feeling.

Playing thru Feb. 22: FSa 8pm; Su 3pm (and 8pm Feb. 19): Bowie Playhouse at White Marsh Park, Bowie; $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.