OLNEY -- There is a scene at the end of the first act of Olney Theatre's production of "I Hate Hamlet" in which the ghost of John Barrymore challenges a television actor named Andrew Rally to a sword fight. As Barrymore thrusts and parries with swashbuckling bravado, Andrew ducks, runs for cover and, when cornered, resorts to Three Stooges-style eye jabs.
If there were "Cliffs Notes" for Paul Rudnick's "I Hate Hamlet" -- as there are, of course, for Shakespeare -- they'd merely have to describe this duel and it would be evident that this is a comedy about a challenge issued by the great Barrymore to a middling TV star, or, in a broader sense, issued by holy theater to profane TV.
I don't have to tell you which one wins. "I Hate Hamlet" is a play, after all, and Olney's crackerjack production -- directed by Bill Graham Jr., with fight choreography by Brad Waller -- makes it easy to love.
The plot is hokey but fun. Andrew, star of a TV show called "L.A. Medical" is reluctantly cast as the lead in a Central Park production of "Hamlet." Also against his will, he ends up renting Barrymore's old apartment, where, thanks to a Realtor-cum-psychic, the spirit of Barrymore materializes to coach him.
Barrymore is played by Richard Bauer, who shows up in Elizabethan regalia -- not to mention eye shadow -- displaying the larger-than-life stage presence necessary to carry off the proclamation: "I do not overact. I simply possess the emotional resources of 10 men. I am not a ham; I'm a crowd!"
As his lackluster protege, Bill Mondy has the tougher job since he must convince us Andrew is mediocre -- without being mediocre in fact. And Mondy achieves the right balance; he's as credible as a rookie TV surgeon as he is incredible as a rookie Prince of Denmark.
If the protagonists are overdrawn, the other characters are more so. But then, no one is going to mistake this affectionate spoof for "Hamlet." And Connie Ogden, Halo Wines, Michael W. Howell and Felicia Dantine bring such sheer exultation to their roles, they make a convincing case for replacing substance with fun.
This exultation is showcased in one of Olney's best physical productions, featuring a gothic, wood-paneled set by James Kronzer and costumes that comment on both 20th century and Elizabethan fashions by Rosemary Pardee.
Finally, it's a pleasure to see the play as written. "I Hate Hamlet" became a cause celebre when it made its Broadway debut in the spring of 1991. Nicol Williamson played Barrymore, and his onstage antics attracted more attention than the script -- partly because he tended to ignore it and partly because he took his dueling too seriously. "Forbidden Broadway" dubbed the New York production "I Hit Hamlet," but, at the risk of a bad pun, it's Olney's production that scores a direct hit.
'I Hate Hamlet'
When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Through Aug. 2.
Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108), Olney.
Call: (301) 924-3400.