Barrymore wrap

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Well, and now the run of I Hate Hamlet is done. The Ghost of John Barrymore has been laid to rest. I’m ready for a nice break from the theeyater for a bit, I am. It was fun, though—I mean, any actor playing that part ought to be having fun, innit? It’s a big, juicy pie of a role and I ate it up. As usual, I will run down some positives and negatives, but on the whole, it was a marvelous experience, and I’m very pleased about it.

How about this time I do the negatives first, mild as they are:

  • The accent. I was not attempting to imitate John Barrymore precisely—my take on the script is that the role isn’t intended to be John Barrymore in any historically accurate sense, but to be a specific version of the vain-but-glorious-actor type. I did listen to a few recordings of John Barrymore, early on in the process, and certainly took some of his mannerisms into account, but I was mostly aiming for the mid-Atlantic accent—the sort of accent that sounds British to Yanks and American to Brits, sounds completely unnatural to everyone, and conveys a kind of pretentious prestige. Judging from the responses, I think I overshot toward actual British RP—I wasn’t particularly careful about yod-dropping, which is the sort of thing that people wouldn’t so much notice but would affect the general impression of the accent.
  • The houses—that’s not quite right, as the audiences were very responsive. There just weren’t all that many people there. There were 8 performances, and I would guess somewhere in the region of 400 tickets sold. It’s not a very big hall, and there were only a few nights that felt like small houses, but at the same time—that’s not really very many butts in seats.
  • Connected with that, and also connected with the theater being up away in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the state, not very many of my theater buddies wound up seeing the show. I understand, of course, and I am not complaining about any individual or household that didn’t make the trek, particularly as I almost never go out to see my theater buddies’ shows myself, but the upshot is that most of my theater buddies won’t have seen my Barrymore. Fortunately, I’m not at the stage in my amateur “career” where it’s going to affect my opportunities for future roles. But there are a bunch of people that I would have liked to show off for.
  • There was one review of the show, and it was… not glowing. The writer described it as “overall a pleasurable experience.” Seldom tedious, amirite? Sigh. The thing is—I think it’s a mistake for print newspapers to publish reviews of amateur theater, and the reviews that get published are rarely well-written and interesting, but I still like to see them and clip them for my collection.

And now the positives:

  • The role. It’s just so much fun. The laughs came when they ought to, and mostly the serious bits kept he audience quiet. I felt very much in tune with the audience, and was able (I think) to time a lot of stuff really well. The nearly sitcom-ish writing (in a good way?) also meant I was doing a lot of holding for laughs and generally falling in with the audience’s rhythm. I love that. I do think I have good comic timing, and in particular I think I am better than average at working the audience in that way, and the role did play to my strength. I tend to think of roles either as being in my wheelhouse or stretching, and when one is in my wheelhouse (as this one definitely is) I need to really smash it, and I think I did.
  • The cast. It’s a small cast (six actors) and I like them all. One of them I have worked with twice before; one of them I had met several times but not been castmates with, one is new to community theater (not having trod the proverbial since college back in the day), one is new to non-musical theater, and one I have seen in things but not worked with. They are all talented, and none of them are jerks—very little of the time we have wasted in rehearsals is due to the kind of actor misbehavior that gets up my nose. I haven’t made new close friends, and I haven’t developed a crush on anyone (am I, at last, too old to develop crushes on my castmates? It has been years—certainly nothing in the last ten or twelve shows) but I would be happy to work with any of them again.
  • The swordfight. I had thought I was done with stage combat, other than perhaps some minor shoving and so forth, but I am pleased that I’ve got another chance to swing a foil. It’s not a great swordfight, by any means, but it’s an entertaining one, and I have been fully capable of doing it. Our fight choreographer wrote it to be within my limitations, obviously, but the great thing is that he did so correctly, and that my limitations didn’t shrink too much during the process.
  • I was whining about my theater buddies not coming to the show, but my non-theater buddies came to the show in larger numbers than usual. Some out-of-state folk, some locals I know—and after ten years, some of the people who work in the library with me came to a show I was in. I never pressure them to buy tickets, and certainly after all this time, I don’t expect any of them to come out, but it’s nice that they finally did.
  • I’ll add here one nice bit of business I came up with, a bit that nobody was likely to notice except the gang in the booth that have to watch it over and over, but which I liked. In the last scene, when Barrymore is drunk and despairing, he goes offstage for a bit and comes back with his third champagne bottle of the morning, this time with a glass. And as I am listening to Gary seemingly-succesful spiel luring Andy back to TV work, I carefully fill my champagne flute… and then swig from the bottle. It is upstaging Gary a bit—Barrymore is in fact constantly upstaging everyone, but the rest of the cast don’t seem to resent it.

As I was at strike yesterday—and strike is always a little sad, as it takes so very little time to eliminate any evidence that the show ever existed—I was thinking that one of the themes of I Hate Hamlet is the ephemeral nature of live performance, and the way that compels us to pay attention during its brief life. It’s only made explicit a couple of times: in Andy’s big monologue where he realizes that the kid in the audience who had been leafing through his program started really listening, and also, I think, in Gary’s discussion of how television is the perfect art form, because you can eat, and you can talk, and you don’t have to really pay attention at all. But it’s also, rather sneakily, about John Barrymore’s ghost—there is no real record of his Hamlet, after all, and there is a general sense (at least in the play) that his film work is second-rate. The performances exist only in the memories of the people who saw them, and even then, they are subject to all the flaws of memory. “It was long ago”, says Lillian. “Perhaps I misremember.”

Now my Barrymore, like Barrymore’s Hamlet, exists only in the memories of a few hundred ticketbuyers. That’s sad, but it’s also good. Not just because I get my evenings back, but because I do think that going to the theater—knowing that this experience is all you get, that it will live only in your memory or not at all, sharpens your attention. If you don’t listen, and look, and focus on what’s going on, then it never really happened at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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