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!