Barrymore

By Dave McKensie

The theater has the power to heal. With each new role, I have the opportunity to undertake, this belief is strengthened. I believe it is true whether one participates on stage or in the audience. The opportunity to be immersed in a whole new world, a new time and place. Theater tells stories; fictional or historical, fantasy or reality, drama, romance, tragedy, triumphant or comic. Occasionally a show comes along that provides a good balance of each. Such is the case of “I Hate Hamlet” written by Paul Rudnick.

“I Hate Hamlet” is a ghost story. It has at its core, a reality based in the former life of John Barrymore, “actor, legend, seducer, corpse” to quote the play.

John Barrymore, an American actor of both stage and screen is critically acclaimed as America’s greatest tragedian based largely on his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His life was large, on stage and off. And then he was gone. In the play, a young television actor, Andrew Rally, wants to do something more with his life, possibly be something more. He moves to New York from Los Angeles. With the encouragement of a new girlfriend, Dierdre, and his persistent agent, Lillian, he finds himself auditioning for Shakespeare in the Park, Hamlet. After five auditions he is cast in the lead role, Hamlet. The story begins in the former apartment of John Barrymore, the critically acclaimed greatest Hamlet of all time. My story begins here as well—

As an older actor, I often have the opportunity to use my life’s experiences to help build each character I play. I look for hints of what is going on with others within the play and how my character would react or interact within each scene. It has been a great journey and often quite introspective. This show was a heart stopper of epic proportions. More emotional content than I had experienced in any prior role, a challenge to channel an extraordinary actor, yes, but even more an opportunity to face my own questions of my past…my children, will they be all right? Did I do enough? Make a difference? These thoughts also haunt the ghost of John Barrymore as he is assigned to help poor Andrew Rally become the actor and person he is looking to become. I cherish my moments in finding my version of John Barrymore.

John Barrymore’s ghost returns to his apartment to help the struggling television actor. He is summoned “as a link in a proud theatrical tradition” to mentor a new “Hamlet” in this role. While reading this play, specifically the words and lines of my character, I felt an overwhelming melancholy remembering my attempts as a father to help my children experience life to its fullest, to grasp each moment and recognize it as the opportunity that it is, that it represents. Over and over I found Barrymore expressing his own wishes that he had lived his time more wisely, experienced it more deeply, cherished it more dearly.

In the beginning of the play, Barrymore is still full of himself and acts the part of a cad. A life-sized portrait of his self-possessed, egoist persona—this was a fun experience to portray—but as I thought more and more on his growth towards helping this struggling young man, I couldn’t help but feel a strong paternal and parental pull to comfort him, to support him, to guide him, to love him.

One speech resonates powerfully in my heart and mind: “but there is more, so much more I wanted Andrew to learn…From all that he accuses me of! From my sorry excuse of a life! I was offered the planet. Every conceivable opportunity. Andrew is my last vain hope. My cosmic lunge at redemption.” I found a powerful, underlying determination to do better for him than I did for myself, for my own children. It was cathartic. I struggled with my emotions. Keeping them in check each night was a battle between my heart and mind. I struggled, at times, to remember I also had to be the self-possessed, egoist, the womanizer and matinee idol. Fortunately, the role was written with humor in mind—and that saved me on many an occasion. Healed me. And yet, there was the constant nagging reminder; “Have I done any good, will he be all right?”

In the end, with Andrew, I felt success. The story leads to this conclusion and the emotions I felt were complete in the transition. I realized that I had given the role my best, and in turn, found within myself the courage and willingness to accept, that in real life I had done the same.

But wait, there is more to the story. This one is a bit tougher when compared to real life, but it too had its healing effect on me. In one of the most endearing scenes I have experienced as an actor, Barrymore must also face his “womanizing” past. He is confronted by Lillian, the agent, as Andrew heads off to his first performance. She is now in her eighties but remembers her time spent with Barrymore in her youth. She states firmly to the ghost: “Yes, I can see you! I am old, I see everything!” Again, as an older actor, this moment calls forth the experiences of life, of love gained and lost. This moment in the play was packed with emotions—the scene is deeply moving. The constant struggle to manage emotions was difficult, not letting real-life loss alter the performance was painful. I loved the challenge. It became healing. Rather than seeing the moment through sorrowful eyes, I chose to see it as a moment of redemption. An opportunity to let love lost, be found, and to understand the value of that love, that moment. To find peace in what was. To allow myself to feel the depth and reality that I have not let many see within me. A “reality” that I had not allowed myself to show in real life. The real-life emotions had to be contained, but the healing, the deep healing occurred. This was an opportunity to throw off the façade and be vulnerable. As a result, I believe for Barrymore, this last encounter was more than just a “lustful spree of days gone by” but instead, a tender moment, the fulfillment of a wish, a dream—a chance to be more than one was and become more than what one is… To Be or Not to Be!

Dave McKenzie fills his retirement with substitute teaching, theater, and when possible spending time with his children and grandchildren. He misses his oldest son dearly but keeps him close in his heart. Pickleball has also become a fun diversion. This is his first attempt at publishing his thoughts.

New World Shakespeare Company’s King Lear Plays Nicely Upon the Heath

A Review by Steve Odenthal for Playwrightsalley.com

King Lear – New World Shakespeare Company and Kallisti Theatre Company present King Lear as a literary spotlight on The Road Home. theroadhome.org

A talented and diverse cast has been assembled by the New World Shakespeare Company and Kallisti Theatre Company hosted by the Wasatch Theatre Company’s performance space at the Gateway (124 S 400 W Salt Lake City, UT). Under the able direction of Elise C. Hanson-Barnett, this production spares us the pomp and ceremony of royalty and court and cuts straight to the words and lyrics of this Shakespearean classic tragedy. This well-assembled, yet somehow vagabond troupe shows that an empty space combined with the Bard’s telling of an old, historic King-well past his prime and grasping at straws of sanity-can still captivate and entrance an audience. Time well spent with this group.

The tragedy is alive and well and so very close to us as we watch the play unfold and the body count rise. Many have deemed the story the most depressing of Shakespeare’s works. I have always found the play to be extremely melodramatic, I believe Hanson-Barnett and her able cast sees a bit of this as well. The intermixing of families, legitimate and not, is paramount in this telling and rivals any plot twist we might see on a soap opera. Certainly, there are Divas-in the very best meaning of the word. Two of the old King’s daughters, Goneril (Megan Chase) and Regan (Sierra Trinchet) are spot on in their self-serving, put-upon, and evil ways. Not an opportunity is missed to pout, strut, and demonstrate just how out of touch King Lear (Jon Turner) is with his offspring. Turner is a master at capturing the indulgence of an old man of power turned gray. His portrayal is one that I will long remember and list as great. Turner brings humanity, spry energy (to a too-tired man), a flair for pathos, and, at appropriate times, a glint of thriving mischievousness to the old man who has decided to rid himself of the burden-but, not the perks of a crowned existence.

As the play opens we find Lear joyfully about to split his kingdom between his three daughters. Yes, daughters-for he has no sons. He has chosen to take care of this business before his death so that he can ramble and revel along with his posse made up of one hundred of his most loyal and no-doubt rowdy knights. He foresees a great may nights of revelry while his daughters take care of the heavy lifting and day-to-day affairs. His perception is that his is a devoted family-essentially the three are merely an extension of himself in every way. It is apparent to us groundlings however, that this is far from the case as the good King/Father gives a simple challenge to each of his heirs to proclaim their love for his majesty. With the two oldest prompted first, neither disappoints in their honey dripping and gush. As we are appalled, so too is the youngest of the siblings, fair Cordelia (Suni Gigliotti), who is the designate heroine, of sorts, to the noble family. She has gone through the proper betrothal to the King of France, putting the good of country and alliance before her own choices, perhaps. Perhaps not. At any rate, Gigliotti plays fully the dutiful daughter expecting no less or more than her station has her entitled to. She loves her father, the King, as well as she is able and although she is his most favored, she might well not know it. Gigliotti enhances her sisters’ diva-ness by contrast and her eyes tell many stories on stage. A nice portrayal by the actor. Gigliotti is also one of the Fight Choreographers along with Kailey Azure Green. Complete with daggers and broad swords the staging of the skirmishes in this small venue is worth a ticket on its own.

Some mention needs to be made of Technical Director David Bruner who also handled Sound and Lighting for the production.  There are no frills here but no beats missed at all, in fact, I even noted the exceedingly fitting music pre-show and throughout, which included so many rough-edged and accurate classics that I wanted a copy of the soundtrack. So well chosen-Tom Waits, indeed.

King Lear – featuring Wendy Dang as The Fool and Jon Turner as King Lear.

As mentioned earlier, the stage is essentially black-box with a minimum of distraction and fuss, for what really do you need with a tight cast and classic story. Hanson-Barnett took an open space and filled it with heart, soul, and a hint of comic nods mixed in here and there. Whether it is Kent (Andrew Slaughter) paying quiet homage to Marty Feldman with an eye-patch, or The Fool (Wendy Dang) mopping blood or taking a selfie, this cast finds ways to entertain with subtlety. They accomplish this feat without distortion or destruction to a great work.   

Both Slaughter and Dang move amongst the more vital characters, holding their own in each scene, immersing themselves in their roles, and thereby not allowing any slight. I have seen these roles in other productions over-blown or underdone. This is definitely not the case in this production, as both actors seem to have a full grasp of their character and the function of the role.

 The Oswald character (Kallie Filanda) is well-portrayed in this telling of King Lear as is Albany (Bryce Kamryn). Filanda has the unenviable task of playing a scoundrel who serves Regan and does her evil but never quite rises to the challenge; even deceiving himself that he has spared the life of an old man (Kent) when quite the opposite is true. The character is a necessary and noteworthy part of the tragedy and Filanda brings the full character forth. As for Kamryn, his character walks tall upon the stage from the very outset but seems to be puzzled and pained by the story unraveling before him. What he searches for is some semblance of good in both his wife, Regan and the world itself. Kamryn is well cast in this role and we find ourselves searching with him. It is confusing to see how much of a doormat he is as the evil daughter walks over him in the first act. In the second act, Albany rises a bit but even as the good one, the character is written to not be strong or dominant. Kamryn makes choices that allow us to see nobility even when the character holds no hope for the future. Well played.

What would a Shakespearean excursion be without sub-plotted characters? Well, don’t worry about that in this work. The Gloucester clan brings their own version of dysfunctional to the Lear saga. With legitimacy as a lynchpin in the relationship of a father and his two sons, the illegitimate Edmund (Carlos Nobleza Posas) has taken his last abuse at his father’s hand. Gloucester (Christopher Taylor) has been free with an acid tongue and language aimed at Edmund and his mother to devastating effect in the village. Meanwhile, the “good” son, Edgar (Adam McGrath) seems anything but a hero, listening almost like a student to his younger brother Edmund and generally blending in with his surroundings for the first part of the play. That ability actually serves him well as Edmund has plotted revenge upon Gloucester, which will end the father’s life and frame his older brother Edgar for the crime. Posas brings great stride and dominance to the role of Edmund as he portrays him a master puppeteer and a tremendous antagonist. Posas is at once menacing and alive with ill intent, which spills not only upon the other characters but also upon the audience as well with full-consent of Hanson-Barnett.  I found Posas a fine actor and his performance commanding. Just what you want in your villain.

McGrath has a challenge playing a character (Edgar) that when the smoke has cleared and the bodies are piled high, you say to yourself-“Well, I guess he was the hero?”  In fairness, the character Edgar, although Godson to the old King, finds himself taking flight for his life and seeking to not be recognized or even noticed-so blending in is a good thing. But once his own father is blinded cruelly by the evil royals, he assumes an identity of “Poor Tom” and gives aid and counsel to both his own father as well as the now mad King Lear. McGrath dishevels well and since he and Turner approximate the nakedness of their time on the heath, they make us look past their circumstance and into the substance of their message. As it should be.

Gloucester starts a bad but lowly nobleman. His rank has allowed him certain sway in his village and surrounding regions which no doubt led him to be an adulterer with a strong sense of entitlement. He is not unknown but not of much worth other than his title of earl and like King Lear he chooses poorly in which child to give his trust. Only after his eyes are plucked out does his vision and place start to clear and focus. Taylor gives a very strong performance throughout the production. Whether sighted or blind the actor takes the character through his paces. It will be difficult to forget his screams as the character’s eyes are individually taken. Strong stuff but so is this play.

Catherine Mortimer (King of France/Gentleman/Servant/Old Man) and Kristina Wilson (Cornwall/Doctor) do very well with each of their assignments, asserting well when called upon and fulfilling movement and language needed to keep vital parts on task. In many ways, they were hard to not watch as they brought a different bit of themselves to each individual character. Both also had their time with the sword and dagger and were most valuable to the performance.

I have spoken relatively little about the two actors I most enjoyed. Jon Turner seems poured from a mold of Lear and yet brings such vitality and depth to the role-I was astounded.  Carlos Nobleza Posas is one of the first in this role where I believed each of his relationships. He captures the manipulative and menace that embodies Edmund who has no care of the world or its inhabitants and yet we still love him. Without question a great portrayal.

This is my first experience with the New World Shakespeare Company and I don’t intend for it to be my last. This is their sixteenth production-I have been missing out. I would strongly recommend this show to those patrons 18 and older that can handle a play that depicts acts of violence and sexual situations. These events and issues are handled with what I believe to be a strong but sensitive directorial hand but be aware this is not a Disney brand of royalty. This is Shakespeare – and really good Shakespeare at that.

Adam McGrath, Andrew Slaughter, Blayne Wiley, Bryce Kamryn, Carlos Nobleza Posas, Catherine Mortimer, Christopher Taylor, David Bruner, Dustin Kennedy, Gateway, Elise C. Hanson-Barnett, n Turner, Kailey Azure Green, Kallie Filanda, Kallisti Theatre Company, King Lear, Kristina Wilson, Marty Feldman, Megan Chase, New World Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare, Sierra Trinchet, Steve Odenthal, Suni Gigliotti, Wasatch Theatre Company, Wendy Dang

King Lear by William Shakespeare

New World Shakespeare Company — NewWorldShakespeare.com

Staged at Wasatch Theatre Company – 124 S 400 W Salt Lake City, Utah

April 25-28 & May 2-4, 2019