March 27, 2008

"I Hate Hamlet," Ross Valley Players

A winning poke at Will

Norman A. Hall plays the ghost of actor John Barrymore in the
comedy 'I Hate Hamlet.' (Provided by Ron Severdia)

By Mark Langton

IJ Correspondent

Article Launched: 11/15/2006 10:38:52 AM PST

THE ARTIFICE OF television and the self-importance of "the Theatah" meet and cross swords in Ross Valley Players' bravura production of Paul Rudnick's droll comedy, "I Hate Hamlet," which had its opening last Friday at the Barn Theatre in Ross.

With both parties bringing the requisite superficiality and elegance to the debate, both acquit themselves quite admirably, thanks primarily to three crucial elements: The vision of the multitalented director Bruce Vieira, a number of standout performances by a couple of newcomers to RVP and the runaway comic performance of the incomparable Norman Hall.

In case you're wondering, theater wins.

The original Broadway production of "I Hate Hamlet" opened in April 1991, closing after only 88 performances. It lives on, however, on community theater stages from coast to coast as wildly popular revival-fodder - and one can easily see why.

The story concerns shallow television personality Andy Rally (David Shirk) who has taken up residence in a Greenwich Village loft long ago occupied by stage and screen actor John Barrymore. Since the cancellation of Andy's TV series, "L.A. Medical," the pretty-boy actor has been offered the role of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Barrymore's most celebrated role. Only trouble is, Andy, who possesses all the literary depth of a small wading pool, has no real love (or actual knowledge) of Shakespeare, beyond reluctantly indulging his Ophelia-esque, virginal girlfriend (Mistyann Loetterle) in hilariously bad re-enactments of the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet."

The play opens as Manhattan real-estate agent Felicia Dantine (Teri Trovao) is showing Andy and his girlfriend the gothic, castle-like former residence of Barrymore - itself well appointed for any production of Hamlet, thanks to Don Cate's playful but authentic set design. Andy has rented the place sight unseen to prepare himself for the role by some sort of lazy osmosis, owing in part to the coaxing of his sophisticated, German-born theatrical agent (and, not coincidentally, former Barrymore paramour), Lillian Troy (played by Deidre Green), who also drops in. They are joined later by Gary, Andy's Hollywood director, who weighs in for La-la Land in the debate.

Before too long, broker Felicia leads the little group in a s}ance to summon the spirit of Barrymore, whose ghost ultimately rises from his grave to dole out Pelonius-like advice to his would-be successor on acting, life and romance.

Veteran actor Hall, perfectly cast as the ghost of Barrymore, has the audience in stitches from the moment he appears, descending the staircase in full Hamlet regalia, knobby-kneed tights and all, complete with a fanfare of thunder and billow (thanks to the excellent lighting design and special effects by Les Lizama).

"I do not overact," declares Hall as Barrymore. "I merely possess the emotional intensity of 10 men." You can say that again, as director Vieira wisely allows that emotional and comic intensity free rein to steal nearly every scene, careening across the stage from hidden bottle to hidden bottle, displaying a swashbuckling gift for drunken hambone worthy of Sid Caesar in "Your Show of Shows."

However, Hall is not the only scene-stealer in the cast. Green's Lillian Troy, Andy's heavy German-accented agent ("May I shmoke?") repeatedly brings down the house - sometimes with only a casual flick of her cigarette - in a performance reminiscent of Madeline Kahn, notably decked out in a spectacular beaded gown by costume designer Michael A. Berg.

David Shirk, who appeared at the Barn last summer as the villainous Simon Vale in RVP's "Over My Dead Body," is suitably vanilla as TV star Andy. Though less effective in Act One (in which, to be fair, he is called upon to be bland), he comes on like gangbusters at the start of Act Two, invoking not so much Barrymore as Hall, and the two warm into a hilarious comedy team.

RVP newcomer Trovao, who does a decent imitation of Fran Drescher as Andy's brassy real-estate broker, effectively takes over for Green, stealing the otherwise overly long s}ance scene. And much like her performance as Bianca in Shakespeare at Stinson's "Taming of the Shrew," Loetterle's energetic performance as Andy's girlfriend Deirdre is winning and adorable.

Another surprise is newcomer Matthew Boucher as Gary, the Hollywood director. Aside from Barrymore, he rapidly delivers the best lines in the show, dissing Central Park Shakespeare ("It's Shakespeare for squirrels!") and the resistance of modern audiences to Shakespeare ("It's algebra on stage!") and uses his body like balletic soft shoe.

Too often content to be an extended sketch in two acts, it should be noted that "I Hate Hamlet" does have a couple of deep moments. In two speeches in Act Two, director Vieira, who makes his directorial debut with this production, permits Hall to upstage himself, by doing a serious reading of Hamlet's famous advice to the players.

This is immediately followed by an equally moving soliloquy, in which Barrymore regrets the squandering of his art and soul in Hollywood, following his past New York triumphs. That Act Two speech seems to touch something deep, almost tragic, in Hall, and thus, powerfully, in us. For this reason alone, go see it.


What: Ross Valley Players' "I Hate Hamlet" by Paul Rudnick

Where: Barn Theater, Marin Art & Garden Center, Ross

When: Through Dec. 17; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Nov. 26, Dec. 3, 10, 17 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30, Dec. 7, 14 and pay-what-you-will on Friday

Cost: $16 to $20

Information: 456-9555 or

Rating: ¬¬¬¬

Mark Langton can be reached at

March 01, 2008

PREVIEW: 'Retired' Dunn isn't.

To get things Dunn

By Mark Langton
When director James Dunn enters a theater in Marin, you’d think it was the pope arriving.

Come to think of it, now that he’s turned 75 (Dunn’s 75th birthday was Feb. 26), he does sort of look like a pope right out of Central Casting. Indeed, as he joins his College of Marin (COM) cast for a final week of tech rehearsals for his latest production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream,” he looks every bit the bemused, elfin pope.

For example, when he enters a room, he glides in, often with what appears to be a solemn entourage. He rarely moves his head from side to side, holding it the way a pontiff might. Many student actors, upon his arrival, have been known to genuflect -- still others escape into solitary prayer.And then, of course there's that whole infallibility thing.

“It’s about discipline,” says Dunn, a former Marine. “The Marines helped me to become an organized director, and that’s what I teach. I tend to stress that with actors. I tell them: Be disciplined. Be organized. Learn your lines. Be on time.”

Ross Valley Players’ production manager Bob Wilson, who has considered Dunn to be his best friend for over 25 years, describes Dunn as a man of many parts. “There is this one part – from a part of his life that really is so important to him – that is the gruff Marine. I believe it is a tool. He uses it to challenge people. To get things done. Then there is the artist part, who is, well…kind of a softie.”

Wilson added, chuckling, “And if you quote me, I’ll deny it.”

Dunn founded the drama department at College of Marin (COM) in 1964. He’d attended COM himself, as a student, and even played on the school’s football team (“We lost then, too,” Dunn says.). He served as a Marine Corp reservist during the Korean War, returning later to COM as an instructor. After 30 years of teaching and heading the department Dunn announced his “retirement” in 2003.

Some retirement. He still returns every spring to teach a Shakespeare class and direct a play; he continues to direct and participate in shows for local companies, like the Marin Theatre Company, the Marin Shakespeare Company, Ross V
alley Players and Northern California Shakespeare Co (formerly Shakespeare at Stinson); and, as the ongoing artistic director of the Mountain Play, he continues to bring an extravagant Broadway musical to the top of Mt. Tam every year. He hasn’t missed one since he started doing them, in 1983.

Dunn has directed “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” many times before, but this production promises to be the most lavish. (“
Robin Williams was in my first one here,” says Dunn of his former student. “He carried a spear.”) All three disciplines of COM’s Performing Arts Department (drama, dance and music) will collaborate on this production, which opens Friday, Feb.29 in the Fine Arts Theatre.

This fairy tale about love, says Dunn, featuring Shakesp
eare at his funniest, and most romantic, will be performed with a full orchestra on-stage, playing a score composed for the play in 1826 by a 17-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Patricia Polen's period costumes and Ronald Krempetz's sets are said to be so elaborate and ornate they threaten to "out-act" the actors says David A. Moss, who plays Oberon, king of the fairies -- in a suit of lights.

"I call it, 'Shakespeare On Ice,'" quipped the former stand-up comedian. "The audience will be like," Moss shifts into a another voice
, "'Why is he SPEAKING when there is already WAY too much hap-pen-ing to me-e-e-e...?!,' you see, so we're really going to traumatize these people, basically. Yes. Really bring it."

Choreography will be by Sandra Tanner.

“I think we’ve got a pre
tty good cast. I’ve got Moss (who starred in last year’s “Othello”) as my Oberon. Bruce Vieira (who played Tevye in Dunn’s Mt. Play production of “Fiddler on the Roof) plays Bottom. I’ve got Steven Deitz (“A Few Good Men,” “A Comedy of Errors”); plus Allison Peltz….”

Lesley Currier, co-founder of the Marin Shakespeare Co., for whom Dunn will direct “Amadeus” next s
ummer, agrees with Wilson. “The gruff Marine is useful to him as a teacher. That other part? That’s the part he creates with.”

Currier describes Dunn as having the soul of a 20 year old and the stamina of a 40 year old. “And we all hope he'll continue making theatre for another 60 years…I'm delighted to wish Jim a happy 75th birthday.”

Moss added, “I just want to say this: Jim, you aren’t fooling anybody. You try to come off as this gruff old Marine, but we all know that inside you have the heart of a teddy bear. Give it up."

Ask Dunn how he, himself, reconciles both Marine and artist, and he merely laughs. “I have absolutely no idea,” he says.

“I like to use that great Geoffrey Rush line from the movie, ‘Shakespeare In Love.’ Whenever he’s asked anything, particularly how it is that any of the chaos manages to come together on opening night, Rush always answers the same way:

"'It's a mystery!'"


What: “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream,” by William Shakespeare, directed by James Dunn.

Who: The College of Marin Performing Arts Department

Where: The Fine Arts Theatre on the Kentfield Campus (corner of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. and Laurel Avenue)

When: Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 29, March 1, 7, 8, 14 and 15 at 8 pm; Sundays, March 9 and 16 at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $18 general and $15 students and seniors. To reserve tickets, please call the College of Marin Box Office at 415-485-9385, or go to