‘I Hate Hamlet’ is an inside joke, inside a reference, wrapped in an annotation

Zachary Andrews/Colorado Shakespeare Festival

There’s an unnamed but pervasive phenomenon widely known by literary agents, publishers and film and theater festival submissions agents that is best summarized as “early novel syndrome,” in which someone with a clear and focused talent for writing/acting/filmmaking turns their sights on the only story they yet know: the struggle to create whatever it is they’re trying to create. Books about writing. Films about filmmaking. Plays about stagecraft. It is largely in this space that that I Hate Hamlet, by playwright Paul Rudnick, currently showing at Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 9, lives.

The play is the story of Andrew Rally (played by Alex Esola), a TV actor known for his role on LA Medical, a E.R./Chicago Hope-style hospital drama. After the show ends, Rally accepts a role as Hamlet in a New York-based Shakespeare in the Park production of The Bard’s Danish play. Rally quickly begins panicking about the role and thanks to a seance performed by his real estate agent, summons the ghost of his apartment’s former inhabitant: famed Hamlet-portrayer — and famed drunk — John Barrymore (played by Sam Gregory) who decides to coach Rally through the role despite Rally’s attempts to bow out altogether. Hilarity ensues. 

It’s not hard to understand why I Hate Hamlet was chosen for this season at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. It’s a theater-lover’s play, and as should be obvious from the title, fits perfectly into the Shakespeare theme. And though it’s an obvious gimmick, Hamlet is an excellent device for comedy, as comedy requires some elements of shared understanding, something Shakespeare’s oeuvre and fan-culture provides.

But for all the inside jokes that hit like a Mike Tyson uppercut, the metaness of the script is as much hindrance as it is a help in a dramatic sense, as it pushes the characters more toward filling roles in the story than it does toward them being independent, fullyimagined characters.

The most obvious struggle is with the female characters, who exist mostly as moons of Rally.

Rally’s agent, Lillian Troy (Martha Harmon Pardee), doesn’t really have much need to be in the show, other than to fill some space by offering up a few punchlines based off of the one-note joke of her being German.

And Rally’s girlfriend, Deirdre McDavey, played by Jamie Ann Romero, is a stage version of a Disney princess, existing solely to find her true love, which she describes as some sort of unrealistically romantic hero poet. She’ll settle for nothing less. Consequently, McDavey is a 28-yearold virgin, who will only consummate her years-long relationship with Rally if he nails Hamlet, which further maintains the vanilla patriarchal narrative of male sexual conquest as the plot-driver.

“She was just the one-dimensional, unobtainable fuckbait that’s in nearly every story about a guy,” my girlfriend shrugged on the way out, unfazed after a lifetime of such storytelling.

Granted, I Hate Hamlet premiered at CSF in the midst of #YesAllWomen, and shortly after a provocative opinion piece in The Washington Post linking the misogyny-motivated shooting rampage in Santa Barbara to male-centric storytelling devices in American culture, items that were weighing heavily on this critic’s mind when I Hate Hamlet premiered at CSF. But what was striking isn’t that the female characters were overtly sexist, just that their primary purpose in the story was as a supporting cast for the lead, as if they had no real drive or purpose of their own that was worth including. There was a small subplot with the agent being sick, but it wasn’t really developed and felt tossed in more to weigh on Rally’s mind than to give her character another dimension.

But what saves the show from a meta-meltdown is clever writing and strong comedic performances from the cast.

What Rudnick’s script lacks in complexity and depth it makes up for in zingers.

And the best zingers and performance come from Steven Cole Hughes in the role of the Gary Peter Lefkowitz, Rally’’s “L.A.-guy” stereotype of a friend, who is trying to lure him away from the theater and back to what may well be the worst idea for a television program ever — which, being such a terrible idea, pays a truly obscene amount of money.

“Shakespeare? Isn’t that like algebra on stage?” he says, baffled by Rally’s decision to play Hamlet.

The role is pure sleazy agent/producer stereotype, but the venom towards live theater in Hughes’ delivery is so barbed, so precisely befuddled, that you just want to set him loose on a verbal rampage to watch the carnage. Gregory is also fantastic in the role of Barrymore, a swaggering, self-important drunk who wants to duel Rally into submission. But much of the selfimportance of the character also feels present in the play as a whole, as it is piggybacking its narrative on greater works rather than making an effort to stand on its own.

In the end, I Hate Hamlet is fun. Not knee-slapping, gut-busting, overthe-top fun, but cleverly composed, tasteful frivolity fun. But it’s more for fun those who love Hamlet and want to see Barrymore dish out some justice to the haters of the world than it is for those who prefer their plays to be in the president’s English, as opposed to the Queen’s. Luckily, Shakespeare’s demographic — and much of theater’s as a whole — tends to skew towards thee, thou and yore, more than yo, y’all and foshizzle.