"I Hate Hamlet" gives theatergoers something to love. 

For Love or Money

It's perhaps impolite to mention value in the same breath as theater. We're talking about art, after all. But in a city where theater tickets can cost 20 bucks or more, it's worth noting that the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre charges just $10 to attend its production of "I Hate Hamlet." That's an astonishing bargain when you discover that the legendary actor John Barrymore appears on stage.

OK, so it's only the ghost of Barrymore. And the ghost is played by Stan Kelly, a flesh-and-blood actor. But Kelly's gleeful turn as the charming rogue is more than worth the price of admission. He performs, he seduces, he shoots, he scores. He takes full advantage of a role that incurs no penalty for flamboyance or excess. At one point, Barrymore even refers to himself as a "Freudian bonus coupon."

The play begins when an insecure television star, Andrew Rally (Dale Church), moves into Barrymore's old apartment. His television series has been cancelled, he appears regularly in an embarrassing commercial with a talking chipmunk, and his girlfriend (played by Mandy Flowers with an accomplished wide-eyed quirkiness) won't sleep with him because she wants it to be "absolutely perfect" when she does.

Even more troubling, his phlegmatic agent (Jennifer Stanfield) has pushed him into accepting the title role in a production of "Hamlet."

Enter Barrymore (with appropriate lights, smoke and sound effects). He has returned from the hereafter to help Andrew prepare for Hamlet. Before he barely gets started, Andrew's deal-making friend, Gary (Colby Mills), arrives with a pitch for a sleazy new television series. To sell out ... or not to sell out. That is the question.

Like Hamlet, Andrew must battle chronic indecision, self-doubt and a chaste girlfriend. Unlike Hamlet, he must do it at the point of Barrymore's sharp tongue (and occasionally his sword).

Ticket value doesn't end with Kelly's performance, by any means. Nicole Pintal turns in a particularly boisterous performance as Felicia, Andrew's real-estate agent. Early in the first act, she conducts a sidesplitting seance in search of Barrymore.

Lin Heath's rendering of Barrymore's Gothic retreat is both striking and playful. Rebecca Jones' costumes fully exploit the opportunity for Shakespearean garb in a contemporary setting. In other words, you'll see men in tights here.

For the most part, director Lynn Smith moves things along at a nice pace. But the script veers dangerously close to seriousness at times in the second act and begins to drag. Fortunately, Kelly is always there with a well-timed line or gesture to put the silliness back on track. We should expect nothing less from an actor who can so authentically deliver the line: "I do not overact. I simply possess the emotional resources of 10 men. I am not a ham. I'm a crowd."

"I Hate Hamlet," at the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, 319 N. Wilkinson Road, through Feb. 16. Tickets $10. Theater information: 262-9760 or www.cattheatre.com.


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