Life is a spoiler. Get over it. – XOXO, Miss Jaye
“What makes a star?
Thrilling vocal range? Decades of training? The proper vehicle?
Tights!” – Rob Howard as John Barrymore
I actually do dislike Shakespeare in a way that is unbecoming of anyone who holds an MA in English, so I was down to check out Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre’s season opener, I Hate Hamlet. When I realized it was written by Paul Rudnick, I was doubly excited; Rudnick’s Jeffrey was a key text in helping me understand my budding sexuality (as well as the community and culture I was coming out into) as an undergrad in the UND Honors Program. Rudnick has a certain sarcastic wit and flair for the dramatic that might rub millenial queers in not altogether the right ways, but it’s definitely a piece of the era in which it was created; though this play deals more generally with the idea of fame and achievement and less with burgeoning queer identity, the snark and the sass are very emblematic of a slew of young gay male writers who produced prominent works in the early to mid-90s.
The director, Marcus Woodard, allows his actors room to invent themselves on the stage and though they are generally successful it has to be said that none of them are particularly likable – the characters I mean, certainly not the actors. Perhaps this is another hallmark of the darkly cynical perspective espoused by so many young gay men of that era, still reeling from the devastation of HIV and just beginning to achieve some cultural recognition (if they fit certain archetypes that left many of their lesbian and trans compatriots still in the shadows). Yes, the characters are all interesting but it’s hard to form any deep attachments to them. Michael McGurran plays Andrew, a hot young actor just coming off a freshly cancelled soap, who has rented John Barrymore’s infamous apartment in New York, the Alchemist’s Corner, and is mulling over the possibility of playing Hamlet for Shakespeare in the Park. He’s brought with him his cocktease of a girlfriend Dierdre (Alivia Holkesvig), a frustratingly coquettish virgin determined to save herself until she finds herself a true hero – and true love; Lillian (Nikki Quam), his brash German agent who manages his career with finesse and more smarts than the superficial TV star could hope to muster; and his producer friend Gary (David Watnemoe), a cunning Hollywood-type who is looking for the next “get rich quick” angle to sell Andrew’s face to salivating networks. Bubbly but dim real estate agent Felicia (Tina Wilkening) is responsible for snagging Barrymore’s old digs for the directionless actor (suggesting that she has more percolating beneath that red hair than it initially seems) and shows enthusiastic but somewhat superficial interest in the actual history of the place or in Andrew’s artistic ambitions.
Rounding out the cast is Fire Hall alum Rob Howard as Barrymore, a blustery, magnanimous character who bullies, cajoles, and eventually seduces Andrew into playing the role of Hamlet with promises of true greatness. The two discuss the difference between fame, a paltry superficial thing with which Andrew is currently well-acquainted, and glory, a much rarer achievement reserved for those “true actors” who dare to accept the challenge to rise above the level of their own perceived talent and do great things. Howard’s grandiosity plays well against McGurran’s interpretation of Andrew, which is all plastic packaging and Hollywood dullness. Barrymore is aware of his own foibles (indiscretions and alcoholism color his past, but his biggest regret seems to be his failure later in life to be able to memorize lines and continue his craft) and plays to his own inflated grandiosity (“I’m not a ham,” he admonishes Andrew, “I’m a crowd!”) and his reflections on his personal failings provide the most emotionally resonant moments in a show that is heavy on laughs but pulls most of its emotional punches. Quam also manages to gently tug the heartstrings when she reunites with Barrymore’s ghost, reminiscing about an old fling from long ago, but there just isn’t that much depth to be mined – if you’re coming to see this show expecting “the feels,” you’ll be left wanting more.
Holkesvig is a talented actress and she delivers a well-rounded performance as Dierdre, a strange mix between an artistic hippie and a sexless prude. She makes big speeches about wanting to find a true love that is as great as her big theatrical idols, the biggest of which is Hamlet, but pals around with shallow TV stars. The character is written with contradictions that never rise to the level of being complexities. It’s possible she sees a spark of true talent in him, and that she is the driving force behind him wanting to attempt the role (and thereby hopefully, finally get her into bed), but the character is never fully believable as a catalyst for his transformation. When she finally gives in to his advances, realizing that he was a different sort of hero than what she had previously imagined (“What makes a hero is just trying to do what’s right, despite impossible odds.”), there is no satisfaction in the victory and there is no sense that this is the sort of great couple that will be immortalized in the caliber of literature the two discuss. Even Andrew’s seemingly heartfelt platitudes about his affections for Dierdre (“She makes me think love is as amazing as it’s supposed to be.”) ring a bit hollow.
Call me a sucker for a supporting actor, but Watnemoe and Wilkening were the standouts for me. Watnemoe’s Gary is a strange amalgamation of Jersey Shore douchebag with California yuppie, shallow ambition wrapped in Affliction t-shirts and blank stares, and it totally works for me. As he’s trying to convince Andrew to agree to his next production pilot, he speaks with a fluidity that is suave and meaningless, deprecating and seductive, like cotton candy formed from thinly spun shards of glass. Wilkening’s Felicia is giggly and borderline annoying when she enters, but beneath the ditzy facade she actually emerges as a shrewd player – not only does she maneuver Andrew into a position to accept the role of Hamlet (thereby securing the undoubtedly sizable commission on the real estate acquisition she orchestrated for him) but she also lands herself a Hollywood vacation on the arm (and possibly at the expense?) of Gary, the ultimate taker getting taken scenario. It’s definitely not a match made in heaven, and you can hear the timer ticking down even as the affair starts, but you leave feeling that sweet, smiling Felicia will do just fine.
While the play lacks real emotional gravitas, it does raise some important questions about the rewards and challenges of artistic endeavors. Why do we creative types do what we do? Andrew has “made it”: he’s a successful television star, he has adoring fans and a ton of money, and yet he is tempted by this artistic challenge that seems beyond his limited skill set. Why bother? Why not sign on Gary’s dotted line and move on to the next blockbuster, cashing more checks and gathering even more adoring fans? And what about those who toil away without even Andrew’s superficial success, like poor Dierdre dreaming of playing his Ophelia while being pushed to the side as an unnamed handmaiden? What drives them? What sustains them?
Those are the questions all of us with creative drives must grapple with as we try to squeeze our passions in between shifts, as we attempt to monetize the fruits of our labors, as we try to create moments of theatrical truth with budgets that sometimes barely surpass the price tag of the latest iGadget. But that’s the thing about creation: bigger budgets and slick marketing don’t guarantee a better product, a more truthful creation. Bigger, perhaps, but not better. If you’re looking to arrive at fame, they can definitely help, but when it comes to glory…well, that’s a whole different animal entirely. And though we all have bills to pay, and creative people rightly want to be recognized (and compensated) for the work they do (that we do, as I am certainly observing and commenting on this loosely organized tribe of artistes from within rather than without), it is the passion and fulfillment that drive us to continue creating the works that we do. There are important conversations that need to be had about treating artistic and creative professions with a higher level of respect, and it’s well past time that we stop treating the arts as an expendable line item on an otherwise “practical” budget. But creators will create. That’s what they (we) do. Sometimes the money flows in, sometimes it trickles, and sometimes the well runs dry. But creators continue to create, to engage, to inspire. We try to do what’s right, despite impossible odds.
Sometimes we miss the mark.
And sometimes we’re great.
And in this production, the actors and technical team may not have as wide an emotional range to work with in the material, but they grapple with these questions through humor and reflection. There are some great zingers in the show, and the magical realism of the scenario leads to some unexpected moments and interactions between the actors. The technical details are mostly successful; the set features an ornate window that draws the eye and there is a nice flow of action in the space, though more could have been done to create the sort of Gothic den that Barrymore envisioned when creating his famous domicile. The costumes in the first act aren’t as coherent as those in the second, with Andrew’s appearance especially seeming more mismatched frat boy than budding media star, but again the overall effect is, for the most part, successful. The biggest technical challenge was the lighting which felt a bit haphazard and could have more seamlessly supported the evolving action on the stage and provided some much-needed visual variety. But laughs were had and none of the cast took their characters too seriously, playing for laughs and light-hearted chemistry over grand dramatic gestures.
I Hate Hamlet is a nice solid opener to the new season at the Fire Hall filled with plenty of laughs and a story audiences can ease into and whet their appetites for the coming year of theatrical delights. It runs the next two weekends, Thurs – Sat at 7:30 pm. There will also be a Sunday matinee this weekend only at 2 pm. Tickets are available through the Chester Fritz box office or at the door and there are discounts for students, seniors, and military.
Tags: Alchemist's Corner, Alivia Holkesvig, David Watnemoe, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Hamlet, I Hate Hamlet, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jeffrey, Jersey Shore, John Barrymore, Marcus Moodard, Michael McGurran, Miss Jaye, Nikki Quam, Paul Rudnick, Rob Howard, theatre, Tina Wilkening, World of Champagne, Yorick