Paul Rudnick’s ‘I Hate Hamlet’ opens in Sonoma

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Planning to go see ‘I Hate Hamlet’?

Who’s staging it? Sonoma Arts Live

Where is it? Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St.

When is it? Thursdays – Sundays, Sept. 22 through Oct. 9.

Show times? Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much? $15 - $45. Tickets available online at www.sonomaartslive.org, or by calling the box office, 6 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday – Friday (866) 710-8942

Here’s a good “theater world” question.

What’s harder and more intimidating to have to accomplish on stage – the simple, basic acting of a scene? Or the wielding of a sword in a choreographed, highly physical sword-fight, designed so the participants are dodging furniture and other cumbersome set pieces, all while trying not to actually hurt one another?

“Oh, the acting part is harder, definitely,” laughs Bill Garcia, who is playing the lead in Sonoma Arts Live’s “I Hate Hamlet,” opening this weekend at Andrews Hall. “I wrestled in school,” says Garcia, who also serves as fight choreographer for the show. “I definitely have the combat instinct. For me, personally, that’s auto pilot. But acting? When you’re standing still, thinking and talking, being another person, and showing emotions. Acting is hard. It can be scary. But swords? Swords are fun.”

Blending a bit of fun with a bit of fear.

That sounds about right for Paul Rudnick’s beloved stage play, “I Hate Hamlet,” part slapstick comedy, part ghost story, and part Shakespearean spoof. Inspired, in part, by a time when the award-winning playwright found himself living in actor John Barrymore’s old New York City apartment – which is evidently not haunted – the deliciously clever play is partly an homage to that age-old actors nightmare of finding oneself on-stage before an audience, fully unprepared and usually under-dressed.

“I have never had stage fright myself, per se,” says Garcia, who’s done a fair amount of stage work. He appeared at Andrews Hall two years ago in Narrow Way Stage Company’s “Alice: The Revolt of Wonderland,” in which he played several characters including the Cheshire Cat, and also staged the various fight sequences. Last year, he played Dracula in the Raven Players production of the Bram Stoker story, in Healdsburg. “What I do sometimes carry with me onto the stage,” he allows, “is that classic reticence an actor can have. I played Rosencrantz once in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” I’ve never had so many lines in one show.”

That, he says, was pretty intimidating.

“I really don’t mind getting up in front of people, though,” Garcia says. “I kind of like showing off. Going into ‘Dracula,’ I said, ‘Since I’m the guy who’s going to get blood all over me, can I just take my shirt off during the bloody scenes?’ In ‘I Hate Hamlet,’ though, I’m playing a guy who is not so comfortable in front of others, and that, ironically, is a bit of a challenge for me. I apparently gesture with my hands a lot. Joey, one of our directors, keeps saying, ‘Don’t do that. Your character wouldn’t do that.’”

The 1991 Broadway hit play follows down-on-his-luck Los Angeles television actor Andrew Rally (Garcia), who finds himself in-between TV gigs, and reluctantly agrees to take on the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s most notoriously demanding tragedy. While in NYC, he rents an apartment that turns out to contain the ghost of its former resident, John Barrymore (Randy St. Jean), as famous for his own masterful portrayal of the melancholy Dane as he was known for his raging alcoholism. Dressed in full Shakespearean tights and doublet, the still-soused thespian suddenly appears to haunt, inspire, encourage, threaten and otherwise bully the increasingly hesitant actor into following through with the play. Complications ensue when Andrew’s sexy-but-virginal, Bard-loving girlfriend Dierdre (Isabelle Grimm) arrives, apparently hot-to-trot now that her paramour is becoming a Shakespearean actor, but she’s unaware that Andrew has just been offered a part on a sure-to-be-popular new TV show, which would give him an excuse to drop out of “Hamlet.” Meanwhile, alarmed at Andrew’s increasing stage-fright, the ghostly Barrymore, somehow armed with sword and rapier, challenges the hapless Hamlet to a duel.

Joey Hoeber, who last year directed the bittersweet “Same Time, Next Year” for Sonoma Arts Live, is co-directing the show with Sonoma Arts Live Executive Director Jaime Love. Hoeber also appears onstage in the play as the pompously cocksure Hollywood producer, Gary Peter Lefkowitz. Also appearing are Nellie Cravens as Andrew’s agent, Lillian Troy, who once had an affair with Barrymore, right there in her client’s new apartment, and Jill Wagoner as Felicia Dantine, a real-estate agent who claims to be able to converse with ghosts.

In the play’s Broadway debut, Andrew was played by Evan Handler (“Sex in the City”), who scandalously quit the show after Nicol Williamson (“Excalibur,” “Robin and Marian”) – the notoriously hard-to-work-with British Shakespearean who was cast as Barrymore – lost his cool and actually stabbed Handler during a live performance.

“I’ve heard whispers about that incident,” Garcia says. “That sounds so crazy. Randy, who plays Barrymore in our show, he’s never done stage sword-fighting before, but he’s really getting the hang of it. He’s having fun now.”

And does Garcia anticipate any Nicol Williamson-style aggression from his own John Barrymore?

“Oh, I really doubt it,” he laughs. “And fortunately, Randy and I get along really well.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

Planning to go see ‘I Hate Hamlet’?

Who’s staging it? Sonoma Arts Live

Where is it? Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St.

When is it? Thursdays – Sundays, Sept. 22 through Oct. 9.

Show times? Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2 p.m.

How much? $15 - $45. Tickets available online at www.sonomaartslive.org, or by calling the box office, 6 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday – Friday (866) 710-8942

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