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Billy Hamlet Times Two

Last week, I was pretty much everywhere.  From Los Angeles to Boston to NYC to New Hope, PA, and back.  I’ll spare you the drama, the white-out conditions, the frigid temperatures, and the detour to Secaucus (oh, the humanity).  On Broadway, I caught one of the last performances of Bernhardt/Hamlet.  The play by Theresa Rebeck (who, among other things, wrote the first season of Smash) has good material, and an even better cast.  There’s a terrific story there, but it gets sidetracked into women’s lib chatter.  You see, the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt may well have been for women’s lib.  After all, she believed women could do whatever men could…and better.  But she didn’t go around fighting for all women – she just did what she wanted.  This is one of the reasons she wanted to play Hamlet.  Thank goodness for Janet McTeer, who is brilliant as the divine Sarah.  She makes something out of almost everything…except for the opening of the second act where she was felled by a mysterious malady which led to her being assisted off the stage.  House lights came on, and an announcement was made that the show would resume momentarily.  Within five minutes, the lights dimmed, and McTeer entered, picking up where she left off – but not before saying, “You weren’t going to get off that easily”.  It’s a flawed play about a fascinating moment in theatrical history starring a true legend.

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The next day, I saw another legendary lady in another play about Hamlet.  The play was Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, and the actress was the incandescent Elizabeth Ashley.  There are few people I would risk life and limb to see in a blizzard.  But Miss Ashley tops that list.  Whenever she hits the stage, it crackles with excitement.  And when a mishap occurs – such as awkwardly sitting on a sofa – she reacts as she would in real life.  “My dear, your chaise is quite low,” she ad-libbed in a German accent she claimed was right out of Hogan’s Heroes!  The Bucks County Playhouse has assembled a great cast for this play about a TV actor tackling Shakespeare (the run ends on December 1st).  When I was in college, I understudied the role of Andrew – played here by the adorable Ben Fankhauser.  Ben is terrific.  I would have been awful!  Even as a youngster, I knew THE role was the ghost of John Barrymore.  Tom Hewitt devours this scene-stealing role, and yet he never crosses the line into farce.  And playing this part has one enormous perk – he gets to seduce Elizabeth Ashley!  “Am I a lucky guy or what?  I can check that off my list,” he told me afterwards with a huge grin.  The play is as spirited as ever, and the cast is top-notch.  The set is quite stunning, and the whole production makes me eager to return to the Bucks County Playhouse.  But next time, I’ll wait till the thaw.

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