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Spirited version of 'I Hate Hamlet' at 2nd Star

Paul Rudnick's 1991 comedic drama "I Hate Hamlet" is a case of art imitating life: The playwright's recounting his time living in an apartment that was once home to famed actor John Barrymore.

Now receiving sterling treatment in 2nd Star's production at Bowie Playhouse, the story is a tale of two actors and the relationship they form — popular young television actor Andrew Rally, who is considering playing Hamlet, and long-dead stage and screen legend Barrymore, whose rambunctious ghost guides Andrew in the role.

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Upon entering Bowie Playhouse, audiences enter Barrymore's elegant apartment, conceived by 2nd Star founder and president Jane Wingard.

Wingard offers a set that seems fitting for Barrymore, complete with an elegant stained-glass rose window, marble fireplace mantel and carved wood-paneled walls on which the actor's portrait hangs.

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Wingard's vision for the space was executed by her son and 2nd Star partner, Todd Wingard.

Enhancing our view of the set is the backlit rose window, part of the stunning lighting design of Garrett Hyde. Also helping create the Barrymore abode is properties mistress Joanne D. Wilson, who located a large globe that opens to reveal a well-stocked bar. The prop is in keeping with Barrymore's style of living.

The setting is a large contributor to the success of this production of "I Hate Hamlet," combined with the work of skilled actor-director John Wakefield, who makes a memorable 2nd Star directorial debut.

Wakefield elicits stellar performances from his cast of six, and credits the work of his wife, Mary, as assistant director, producer and costumer. Together, the Wakefields propel the acting team to amazing heights.

Starring as Rally is Zak Zeeks, a 2nd Star favorite who enjoys the idea of actors playing actors. Zeeks said he was "rapturous" to be joined on stage by his fiancee, Malarie Novotny, who plays 29-year-old love interest Deirdre McDavey.

Zeeks rushes about the stage, revealing superb athletic ability, skilled comedic timing and sufficient stage presence to avoid being overshadowed by Barrymore's ghost. Zeeks also successfully conveys the larger, more serious issues of an actor confronting the challenging role of Hamlet.

Convincingly portraying the fiance of a Shakespeare-loving girlfriend, Zeeks is equally natural in his glittery black Hamlet costume, vigorously confronting Barrymore's outsize ghost.

As Barrymore, 2nd Star luminary and award-winning actor Fred Nelson is ideally cast, and seemingly destined for another Washington Area Theatre Community Honors Best Actor award — to go with the one he earned for playing Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."

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Always costumed as Hamlet, wearing black tights and a satin doublet adorned with gold chains, Barrymore's ghost is a commanding presence, towering over the other characters and displaying outsized hilarity as he confronts Andrew in a lively dueling scene.

As Andrew's fiancee, Novotny is sweetly romantic. She brightly conveys enthusiasm for Andrew's portrayal of Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park performances. A skilled comedian, Novotny's hilariously bad acting when portraying Juliet is a comic highlight.

Nicole Mullins is cast as real estate agent Felicia Dantine, intent on persuading Andrew to rent Barrymore's apartment. When Dantine announces that she is a psychic and tries to summon the old actor's ghost, the audience is treated to a mysteriously amusing event as Mullins softens what could be a brash character into a nimble-witted, likable and funny woman.

Now appearing in her 15th 2nd Star show, Carole Long shines with a gentle warmth and Old World charm as Andrew's agent, Lillian Troy, who announces that she visited the apartment decades before when it was Barrymore's.

Her charming scene with Barrymore's ghost is masterfully, bringing a delightful twist to the end of the play.

Daniel Douek makes his 2nd Star debut as Andrew's sleazy Hollywood writer-producer-director Gary Peter Lefkowicz, who is clueless about Shakespeare and little concerned about Andrew's acting. Intent on persuading Andrew to sign on with a TV pilot that will bring millions of dollars, Lefkowicz is comically appealing and almost endearing.

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More than a beautifully acted, brisk-paced comedy, "I Hate Hamlet" contains a message about success being achieved by extending one's artistic grasp, and winning while not entirely succeeding at a challenging task.

"I Hate Hamlet" continues through Feb. 22 at Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park, 100 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie. For showtimes and tickets, call 2nd Star Productions box office at 410-757-5700 or go to 2ndstarproductions.com.

Compass points to 'Cathedral'

There's still time to catch a performance of Compass Rose Theater's production of T.S. Eliot's verse drama "Murder in the Cathedral."

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The show traces the last days of Archbishop Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, to which he returns after a self-imposed exile in France — and where he faces various temptations before his assassination.

The Compass Rose production of Becket's examination of his own conscience, as he determines he has chosen the path that serves God, is an artistic triumph in all regards.

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Brilliantly directed by Compass Rose founder and artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne, the show uses towering space to transform the stage into a cathedral, complete with arches and a large gold cross. Merry-Browne is assisted by set designer Joe Powell and lighting designer Ashley Swiger.

Emotional impact is provided by a female chorus of six members who rhythmically tell the story in Eliot's majestic words. The chorus provides the drama while four tempters inject darker, more earthly emotions.

Knight tempters are well played by Ryan Dalusung, J. Hayes Biche, Christopher Williams and Ray Schultz. The priests, who are protective and concerned for Becket's safety, are played with natural ease by Thomas Peter and Thomas Beheler.

Charles Matheny expresses cool intellectual austerity as Becket, supremely eloquent in his purity and authority.

"Murder in the Cathedral" continues weekends through March 9 at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Road. Purchase tickets online at compassroseteater.org.


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