This past weekend, I took my final bow in a stage mounting of Paul Rudnick’s comedy I Hate Hamlet. It was a successful production, praised in the media for the talents of the entire cast and artistic staff.
In the moment, I was still jazzed from pouring my emotions into the show. There was an energy in the air.
However, now that it’s been a few days and the figurative dust has started to settle, the beauty of that moment really becomes clear.
In the play, a TV heartthrob is hired to play Hamlet in New York’s famed Shakespeare in the Park. To help in the process (and to provide endless comedic fodder), the ghost of legendary actor John Barrymore comes back from the dead to teach the young celebrity how to play the role.
CHANCE OF A LIFETIME
I Hate Hamlet is uniquely set up to give the actor playing the central character of TV star Andrew Rally what may be a once in a career opportunity to bask in the embrace of the audience. It is raw emotion. One person alone on stage in the spotlight. This comes after logging not just the delivery of funny lines, but as well sword fights, love scenes, self-loathing drama, and Shakespearean monologues that are expected to be both powerful and authentic.
Coming on the heels of a riveting dramatic speech about his character’s connection to a captive Shakespeare in the Park audience, the actor playing Andrew shares a deep trust with the real-life audience he is performing for. They want to embrace him. And in I Hate Hamlet, they have that opportunity. And I got to be that actor.
However, it almost didn’t happen.
Regina Belt-Daniels is one of the finest directors I’ve ever worked with. We’d worked together on a dinner theater production of Morning’s at Seven for Right-Center-Left Production Company and we both serve on the governing body of It’s Showtime Theatre.
After doing polling and market research, It’s Showtime Theatre had decided to produce I Hate Hamlet at the Cosman Theatre in Huntley, IL. Regina was asked to direct. Having served as the assistant director to Sally Moomey on a production of I Hate Hamlet many years ago, I had always had the role of the Ghost of John Barrymore on my bucket list.
When Sally directed I Hate Hamlet, I was far too young for the role of Barrymore. I was barely in my 20s and the Ghost of John Barrymore is written for a middle-aged actor. Yet, I almost ended up playing him. Sally and I toyed with different scenarios to try to make a 20-year-old Barrymore make sense, but ultimately couldn’t justify it.
The closest we came was her suggestion to insert a line for Barrymore that when you come back from heaven, you do so at the age you most identify with. However, Barrymore was in his 40s when he played Hamlet – so it didn’t make much sense why he would come back as a lad barely old enough to shave.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Fast forward to 2019 with It’s Showtime Theatre. Once Gina was hired to direct a new production of I Hate Hamlet, I inquired about auditioning for the role of Barrymore. Gina, however, had other ideas. She insisted I had to play Andrew Rally.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, throwing a wrench in the world of live theater across the globe. I Hate Hamlet was put on hold. As that hold stretched from months to years, the opportunity of bringing I Hate Hamlet to the stage with Gina seemed lost. Then I got a call.
It was 2022 and the country wide COVID shutdown had lifted. Live theater was again in bloom. Gina had been hired to direct I Hate Hamlet for another organization – Elgin Theatre Company. She insisted that I had to be her Andrew. I was flattered, of course. But, I feared I would no longer be believable in the role. Gina was insistent. She would only direct the play if I would play Andrew.
I thought I was doing her a service in agreeing to play the role. Little did I know, Gina was the one giving me the gift. Playing Andrew Rally in I Hate Hamlet is a memory I will always cherish. The cast was a who’s who of people I had long dreamed of performing opposite – truly some of the best actors I have ever shared the stage with.
David Gasior played Barrymore with just the right blend of comedy, roughish charm, and truth (despite his character’s distain for it); Trace Gamache was jaw droppingly perfect as Andrew’s girlfriend Deirdre; Travis Greuel was so funny he practically brought the audience to tears with his portrayal of Hollywood director Gary Peter Lefkowitz; Karen Mayberry Greuel was a delight as real estate agent and amateur psychic Felicia Dantine; and Alison Thomas Hage brilliantly captured all the character quirks of Andrew’s war criminal talent agent Lilian. Sign language actor Andrew Ross opened up the show to a whole additional audience.
In the play, Andrew views himself as a gimmick. He’s been cast to play Hamlet not because of his talent, but because his marquee name value will put people in the seats. In some ways, I too am a gimmick. I admit it, and there’s no crime in that. While I am blessed to have the support of those who know they enjoy my performances, I’m sure there are probably also those who come out of curiosity. There are probably also those who show up hoping for a train wreck. When you are outspoken about your disability and that disability is mental illness, you make an easy target.
For whatever reason, people turn out to see me perform. All I can do is honor that and do my best to live up to the expectations of those who care. And, who knows? Perhaps I can convert a few naysayers to realize it is possible to deliver a moving Shakespearean monologue while schizophrenic voices are screaming in your head. It’s called acting.
ALONE ON STAGE
When I told Gina that I wasn’t sure I was still right for the part of Andrew Rally in I Hate Hamlet, I told her my fear was that I would be an embarrassment. She told me, she wouldn’t let that happen. And she didn’t. She gave me what will endure as one of my most treasured theater memoires – a final bow that was (in the words of Paul Rudnick) theatre incarnate.
There will probably be more theatrical bows in my future. I sincerely hope so. But, you never know. Film and television work is starting to eat up more of my time. And let’s not forget that the pandemic is far from over.
What I Hate Hamlet has taught me is to cherish the moment.
I thank all the wonderful people who turned out to see I Hate Hamlet at the Elgin Art Showcase. Your laughter and applause were magical. I tried to get out to say hi to everyone who came to the show. If I missed anyone, please reach out so I can thank you properly.
I thank the delightfully talented and giving people I shared the stage with: David, Trace, Travis, Karen, Alison, and Andrew – real actors who know what they are doing.
None of the accolades bestowed on our production would have been possible without the skills and dedication of Steve and Amy Connell, Matt Hordyke, Deb Swinford, Richard Grieger, Trudie Dreyer, Barry Norton, Jon Kramp, Madeline Franklin, Kathy Bruhnke, and Leigh Mussay.
Most of all, I thank Gina for talking me into doing the role and giving me the amazing experience of closing the show on a dark stage in a lone spotlight – just me and the audience entwined in a moment of pure Shakespeare.
Your next bow may be your final bow. Make it count.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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