NEW PORT RICHEY — Many years ago I lived near New Orleans, and one of my favorite pastimes was to put my son in his stroller and saunter up and down the streets of the Vieux Carre.
But Bourbon Street in the late afternoon was our favorite. Back then, barkers in front of nearly every strip joint did their best to lure customers inside.
"Prettiest girls, longest legs, coldest beer," they would cry out. The whole scene felt lively and exciting.
As I exited the Richey Suncoast Theatre Friday night after seeing the comedy I Hate Hamlet, I briefly considered becoming a barker, standing on the street corner coaxing people to come in and buy a ticket. Indeed, the theater’s production of I Hate Hamlet is worth shouting about.
Playwright Paul Rednick’s script is filled with witticisms and the premise and plot are clever, but it is the delivery that counts. Director Rich Aront’s extraordinary cast earns an A+ across the board.
Confident, assured, cool and expertly guided, the six players never miss a beat nor swallow a line. Jason Hoolihan is marvelous as television soap opera star Andrew Rally.
"L.A. Medical, TV Guide, my face at every supermarket checkout in America, right next to the gum," he shouts. But his series has been canceled, so he comes to 1990s New York City to make himself more marketable.
His agent, Lillian Troy (an adorable Anne Lakey), is a German transplant with a bad smoker’s cough, and has gotten him the lead as Hamlet for Shakespeare in the Park. He’s accepted, mainly to impress his sexually reluctant girlfriend Deirdre (Blake Parker), a 29-year-old virgin he yearns to bed.
He’s met by rental agent Felicia Dantine, done with an outrageously exaggerated Bronx accent by Penni Willen, whose over-the-top physical humor sets a delightful tone for the whole production.
Penni moonlights as a psychic medium and sets about calling forth the previous tenant of Andrew’s temporary apartment, the late John Barrymore, considered by many the definitive Hamlet.
Penni thinks she’s failed, and everyone but Andrew leaves. Then appears the ghost of Barrymore, played with finesse by Miguel Rodriguez, considered one of the top actors in the Tampa Bay region. He proves he deserves such accolades in this role. Rodriguez is mesmerizing. Paired with Hoolihan, their scenes are something to savor. These fellows are a dream team.
Barrymore is there to fulfill a pledge every famous Hamlet makes — to coach his possible successor to greatness so that he, the teacher, can finally rest in peace. The only thing is, Andrew has changed his mind and doesn’t want to go on stage.
He’s encouraged to defect to TV by his L.A. friend and actor, Ariana Lefkowitz (Natalie Pozdol-Arshinkoff), who exhorts him with machine-gun rapidity to forget the New York stage and come back to California to make millions and be adored.
To stay or not to stay; that is the question for Andrew. How it works out is fun and funny, but with a serious message about life, love and — what else? — acting.
The show is two hours long, including intermission, but it’s the most entertaining two hours you could spend.