Tag Archives: I Hate Hamlet

Playing Barrymore: An Interview with Ruff Yeager

Ruff Yeager as the Ghost of John Barrymore

Ruff Yeager as the Ghost of John Barrymore

If you ask Ruff Yeager how he manages to portray the larger-than-life Ghost of John Barrymore in Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s current show, “I Hate Hamlet,” without getting distracted by the audience who practically sits onstage, he will tell you that he has a very simple strategy.

“I picture them as ghosts,” says Ruff.

With the inauguration of Intrepid’s new black box space, this summer’s offerings are being produced in an intimate theatre-in-the-round setting, which gives audiences the chance to be up close and personal with the action.

“We can see people in the audience,” says Ruff. “If I really look, I can see their faces.”

In an effort to incorporate this intimacy into the imagined world of the play, Ruff has figured out a way to makes sense of their presence. Because they are sitting on old-fashioned chairs and couches, a beautiful detail that expands the world of John Barrymore’s apartment further into the theater, it is not difficult.

Barrymore 6“I see the audience as all of these other ghosts in our house,” he says, and then adds in true Barrymore form, “I see them as benevolent ghosts who want me to do well.”

Leave it to the character of John Barrymore to crave applause from the afterlife. But that’s exactly what he does in “I Hate Hamlet” – and Ruff’s portrayal of the grandiose Barrymore has audiences and critics raving. It’s not every day an actor’s performance review includes words like “mercurial,” “ebullient” and “charismatic.” But Ruff wouldn’t know, of course, because he doesn’t read them. All he knows is how much fun he’s having.

“I love playing the Ghost of John Barrymore,” he says without hesitation. “Playing a character of this scope and magnitude of spirit…it’s just really joyful.”

Ruff Yeager as John Barrymore and Francis Gercke as Andrew Rally

Ruff Yeager and Francis Gercke as Andrew Rally

That joy is evident during the performances, as Ruff pounces from chaise lounge to mantelpiece to potted plant, pulling out rapiers and bottles of wine as he sees fit. One can’t help but be caught up in his lust for life, even considering his ghostly circumstances.

Even though Ruff had done quite a bit of research coming into rehearsals on this uproarious personality, there was still a lot of discussion with director Christopher Williams about bringing the Ghost of Barrymore to life – and specifically, how big is too big when it comes to this character’s personality. Surprisingly, the new theater space played a large part in that characterization.

Barrymore!“We did a lot of work on volume and articulation,” explains Ruff. “With that, comes larger physicalization, because it takes a lot of energy. In the end, I have to trust Christopher and that what I am directed to do is going to work.”

Mercurial…ebullient…charismatic…that it “works” might be an understatement.

“I Hate Hamlet” must close July 19 and Ruff is already anticipating the loss.

“I’m going to be very sad when this is going to be over because it’s been so much fun,” he admits. “But I’m looking forward to the last two weeks as a real celebration of this character and this play.” – TT

I Hate Hamlet runs through July 19, Thursday 8:00pm / Friday 8pm / Saturday 4pm & 8pm / Sunday 2pm. Purchase tickets here

Photo credits: DAREN SCOTT

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The Dramatic History of the Comedy “I Hate Hamlet”

i hate hamlet sliderBWalk down any crooked street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and you will stumble upon a variety of historical placards mounted to random townhouses celebrating their past creative inhabitants: “Edgar Allen Poe wrote ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ here” (85 W 3rd Street) or “Thomas Paine died here’” (59 Grove Street). This particular neighborhood brims with artistic ghosts, and that is exactly what inspired Paul Rudnick to write his comedic play, “I Hate Hamlet.”

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John Barrymore’s residence, NYC

Rudnick’s muse is legendary actor John Barrymore, who occupied the penthouse of 132 West 4th Street in 1917. The playwright leased the space 70 years later, admittedly becoming more and more fascinated by Barrymore’s history with the apartment. As he wrote in The New Yorker in 2007, “The more I absorbed, and the more months I spent under Barrymore’s bastard Jacobean roof, the more I felt moved to write something set at the address. Someone or something had led me to these quarters and would not be denied.” Enter the characters of television actor Andrew Rally and the ghost of John Barrymore.

While it is significantly Shakespearean to introduce a ghost-haunting to a story – especially one revolving around playing the role of Hamlet – the spirit of John Barrymore is not one to utter a vague command and then disappear, trusting that his charge will be carried out. No. John Barrymore will always plot to steal the spotlight, even from the afterlife. And while he does not task Andrew Rally with avenging his death, per se, he does prompt the character to carry on his legacy by playing Hamlet. Or rather, by playing Hamlet well.

John Barrymore, the play's inspiration Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

John Barrymore,
the play’s inspiration
Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“Andrew, who is Hamlet? A star,” says John Barrymore in the play. “The role is a challenge, but far more—an opportunity. To shine. To rule. To seduce. To wit— what makes a star?”

The banter between modern day actor and acting legend ghost is endless, and one can imagine Paul Rudnick carrying out similar conversations while wandering through Barrymore’s New York apartment. For Intrepid’s part, Fran Gercke will be giving voice to Andrew Rally, while Ruff Yeager will step into the role of John Barrymore. The two will be joined by the powerhouse talents of Dagmar Fields, Brooke McCormick Paul, Gerilyn Brault and Tom Stephenson.

While Ruff Yeager adds a very specific dramatic flair to the role of Barrymore, the part of the legendary actor has historically been difficult to cast. As Rudnick explained it when discussing his own Broadway opening of the show, “The audience needed to believe that whoever played Barrymore, from the instant he stepped onstage, was an Olympian Hamlet, a devastating seducer, and everyone’s favorite scoundrel.” Unfortunately for Rudnick’s production, this meant employing a notoriously ill-behaved British actor named Nicol Williamson. Despite Williamson’s dramatic similarities to the theatrical icon he would be playing, the actor’s catastrophic temperament eventually upstaged his own acting credentials. The play closed after a one-month run in a cloud of scandal.

The New Yorker captures the rocky Broadway debut of "I Hate Hamlet"

The New Yorker captures the rocky Broadway debut of “I Hate Hamlet”

“I had never spent time around a world-class, drain-the-keg loon before,” writes Rudnick, after detailing an account of Williamson physically striking the actor playing Andrew with a sword during a sequence of onstage dueling. That actor not only immediately left the stage, but also the entire production. It was the last in a series of already unbelievable events, that included, among other things, midnight phone calls demanding script revisions and entirely missed performances.

While Intrepid anticipates that its summer season opener will no doubt be riddled with noteworthy behind-the-scenes stories, it is safe to say that the drama on the stage will be enough entertainment for any audience. – Tiffany Tang

“I Hate Hamlet” previews June 27 and runs through July 19.
Tickets on sale now.

Rennie on Rudnick and the Relevance of Shakespeare

Jason D. Rennie directs
I Hate Hamlet

“At their best, dreamers, and at their worst…dreamers.”

Jason Rennie describes his take on “theatre people” when asked about directing the upcoming staged reading of I Hate Hamlet for Intrepid on Monday evening.  According to the playwright, Paul Rudnick, the play is “overrun with theatrical types,” and makes a humorous effort to capture the New York stage scene in all of its gusto and glory.

First performed in 1991, I Hate Hamlet is based on Rudnick’s actual experience renting a New York City apartment that once belonged to legendary actor John Barrymore.  After imagining the stories within the walls of the fourth floor Washington Square brownstone, Rudnick decided to bring them to life in a play.  Hilarity ensued.

Playwright Paul Rudnick
Photo by Claire Holt

“Some of the experiences in the play are kind of nod to people in his life at the time he was there,” Jason explains, mentioning characters such as Felicia the real estate agent (played by Brooke McCormick) and the Lillian, the theatrical agent (played by Rhona Gold) who is based on a woman who historically romanced Barrymore’s son-in-law within the walls of the apartment in question.

In the story, the main character is an actor who has been offered an opportunity to play Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park.  Needless to say, this part requires a little more chops than his regular television gigs, and the appropriate level of panic ensues.

Enter the ghost of John Barrymore.

Ruff Yeager will be portraying Barrymore in Monday’s reading and promises to be less of a handful than the actor who originated the role on Broadway, British thespian Nicol Williamson.  In a detailed account for The New Yorker in 2007, Rudnick spelled out the worst-case-scenarios which came to life during the opening of what would be his first play on Broadway, including Williamson’s drunkenness, lewdness, and missed performances.  The last straw had occurred when he purposefully struck a fellow actor with a sword during a stage combat scene.  That actor promptly left the stage and never returned to the show.

Image from The New Yorker 2007

Even though the show’s original opening was somewhat plagued, Jason maintains that it is one of his favorite plays of all time, and that he has been begging Intrepid artistic directors Sean and Christy to consider it for a while.  With Hamlet opening February 2 on Intrepid’s mainstage, this first staged reading of the year at the Encinitas Library seemed to be the perfect opportunity to showcase the links between contemporary humor and Shakespeare.

Not up on your Shakespeare?  Never fear.  You’ll still laugh.

“It’s not so much an insider’s play,” says Jason, “but there are a few inside jokes.  It’s a nice tongue and cheek homage to theatre.  It allows us to poke fun of ourselves and laugh.”

You might even recognize a line or two, says Jason.  “It doesn’t preach on Shakespeare, but the Shakespearean lines that are present do have a wonderful resonance.  It reminds us that these speeches in these plays do still have value and meaning.”

John Barrymore as Hamlet
image from Shakespearean.com

Is there any truth to the thought of Hamlet as one of the most daunting plays in the canon?  “There is such a heavy connotation with that play,” says Jason.  “It carries a great deal of baggage.   But at its core, it is still a quintessential revenge tragedy that centers around one young man and the conflict within himself.”

Ultimately, the pursuit of the stage translates now just as much as it did when Hamlet was first performed hundreds of years ago, which is what continues to make theatre and storytelling relevant and universal.

“With theatre, you have to look beyond the reality,” says Jason.  “It’s odd because we are preying upon people’s imaginations as much as possible when creating productions.”

He pauses, and then adds, “Yet it is so absolutely necessary for us as human beings to be a part of that.”  – T.T.

I Hate Hamlet (a staged reading).  Monday, January 28, 6:30 pm wine reception, 7:00 pm performance.  Directed by Jason D. Rennie and featuring Ruff Yeager, Jo Anne Glover, Steven Lone, Rhona Gold, and Brooke McCormick.  Encinitas Library, Community Room 540 Cornish Drive, Encinitas 92024.  $15.  You must RSVP in advance in order to attend.  You may purchase your ticket in advance here or rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash or check at the door. Subscribe to a “Flex-Pass” Subscription Package and save $5.  Packages come in 3-Play6-Play9-Play, or 12-Play passes.  If you have any questions, please call the Intrepid Office at (760) 295-7541.