The roguish ghost of John Barrymore takes the stage in Theatre Lawrence’s ‘I Hate Hamlet’

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Jim Tuchscherer, center, Brandon Stevens, right, and Dan Phillips rehearse "I Hate Hamlet" Wednesday, April 17, 2024, at Theatre Lawrence.

Shakespearean drama isn’t really Theatre Lawrence’s thing — don’t expect to see Lady Macbeth wringing her guilty hands in West Lawrence — but having fun with Shakespeare most certainly is.

In the last few years, the community theater has produced “Something Rotten,” a musical farce centered on the bard, and “The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged),” a whirlwind romp through Shakespeare’s three dozen plays.

And now the theater is putting on Paul Rudnick’s “I Hate Hamlet,” a two-act play about an actor’s attempt to play the brooding prince of Denmark.

But don’t feel like you have to brush up on your 16th century vocabulary. The play is set in the ’90s, when people wore “pleated-front pants,” making the show “basically a period” comedy in the view of James Diemer, Theatre Lawrence’s set designer.

“It’s funny!” Diemer says of the production. “People hear ‘Shakespeare’ and they go ‘eek! I don’t want to have to think. I don’t want to have to confront this language in this way. I don’t want these heavy themes and this deep and intense drama.'”

But in no way is watching this show like watching Shakespeare, says Diemer, himself a big Shakespeare enthusiast. “It’s a very different experience.”

And yet some of that “intense” stuff still sneaks in, albeit in a more accessible way.

Instead of confronting the eerie ghost of Hamlet’s father in a Danish castle, the audience will confront the inebriated ghost of John Barrymore (played by Jim Tuchscherer) in his Gothic New York apartment, where he has materialized via a séance to help TV actor Andrew Rally (played by Brandon Stevens) learn the role of Hamlet and, in the process, the “glory” of Shakespeare.

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Cast members in “I Hate Hamlet” rehearse Wednesday, April 17, 2024, at Theatre Lawrence.

In the spirit of Elizabethan drama, the play features dueling desires (in this case, to be a rich TV star or a happy stage actor?); slowly dawning self-awareness; complicated love interests; and a flamboyantly roguish elder, Barrymore, whose sense of fun keeps life’s slings and arrows in perspective.

Upon being informed that he’s dead, Barrymore expresses doubt: “Am I dead? Or just incredibly drunk?”

There’s also, fittingly, a sword fight, the chaos of which demands some precise choreography as well as some inventive prop design, Diemer says.

“When the playwright (asks you) to break a lamp and a vase and a couch every night,” you have to get creative.

Ditto when a principal character is a ghost who is not visible to certain characters on stage. Not reacting to something in your field of vision, let alone something that’s touching you, can be a challenge.

John Barrymore

Barrymore, of course, was a real person, adding a layer of interest to the production. Known for his good looks — and nicknamed “The Great Profile” — he delivered a renowned performance as Hamlet in the 1920s, but in later life he became the proverbial has-been with a string of ex-wives, drunken escapades and money woes.

As one would expect, it’s tremendous “fun” to play him.

So says Tuchscherer, who auditioned for the role out of a fondness for the character’s outsized presence. In the play Barrymore’s protégé, Rally, describes him with the cliche “larger than life,” to which Barrymore responds: “What size would you prefer?”

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922

One of Tuchscherer’s favorite lines in the play is when Barrymore, with an appropriately grand gesture, denies overacting: “I do not overact. I simply possess the emotional resources of ten men. I am not a ham; I’m a crowd!”

“The great thing about the role is getting to play with all those different emotions,” Tuchscherer says.

Another great thing is getting to act on the set designed by Diemer, which Tuchscherer calls “genius.”

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Jim Tuchscherer, right, and Brandon Stevens rehearse “I Hate Hamlet” Wednesday, April 17, 2024, at Theatre Lawrence.

The setting for the two-act play is inspired by Barrymore’s real-life apartment in a New York brownstone, which Rudnick actually lived in before writing “I Hate Hamlet.”

“The apartment’s architecture is highly theatrical, a Gothic mélange of oak beams and plank floors,” Rudnick writes in the stage directions. Above all, he says, it must be “exceedingly romantic and old world, a Manhattan interpretation of a King Arthur domicile.”

Those words were especially alluring to Diemer, who has designed more than a few typical apartment living rooms for the stage, which he notes can get “pretty repetitive.”

A particular challenge with the Barrymore set is that from Act 1 to Act 2 it changes drastically with the main character’s development, he says.

“It’s really one structure, but two totally different scene designs,” Diemer says, referring to the redecoration of the entire space that takes place during the short intermission.

“I just think it’s great fun,” Tuchscherer says of Diemer’s set and the play as a whole, including fellow actors Stevens, Allison Waymire, Isabel Warden, Diane Wurzer and Dan Phillips.

“There’s no great moral story to tell from it,” he says, then — perhaps under Barrymore’s spell — he reconsiders a bit. “They use the word ‘glory’ (in the play), and it kind of dives into that notion of why do we do anything that brings us joy and allows us to express some of our passion?”

So, for the audience, he says, there actually is a moral, and it’s “to do whatever you feel passionate about — and also, to come see me in my tights.”

“I Hate Hamlet,” directed by Theatre Lawrence’s executive director Jamie Ulmer, opens Friday at 4660 Bauer Farm Drive and will have multiple performances through April 28. For information about tickets, call 785-843-SHOW (7469) or go online at

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Jim Tuchscherer, left, and Brandon Stevens rehearse “I Hate Hamlet” Wednesday, April 17, 2024, at Theatre Lawrence.


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