Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

"Barrymore," American Players Theatre, July 13

in recent years, American Players Theatre in Spring Green has usually had a special event during the season. This year, it was a one-show-only production of "Barrymore," a one-man-show (mostly) about the actor John Barrymore. APT veteran Lee Ernst, known to us as a marvellous Cyrano, among other roles, played the title role. The play is set in 1942, three months before his death, which is implied was due to complications of alcoholism. The premise is that Barrymore, whose last stage apperance was in 1938, and movie in 1940, intends to stage a comback by mounting a production of "Richard III," the role that was his first great triumph as a "serious" actor. He has rented a vacant theatre for a night, and, with the help of his long-suffering prompter, Frank (mostly present as an offstage voice), intends to rehearse the part. What happens mostly instead is a two-hour monologue about his life and times which is frequently gleefully profane, and frequently pathetic as the actor struggles with his lack of concentration and memory.

The play started off under circumstances which will make it one of APT's historical shows--the electricity went out just as the show was to start. Fortunately, at 6:00PM in July there was plenty of daylight, so the show went on. Indeed, we hardly noticed when the lights did first return.

The script is undoubtedly entertaining, though I felt Barrymore was short-changed by some of it. He is supposedly unable to remember more than a line or two of Shakespeare at a time, INCLUDING Richard's opening speech, "Now is the winter of our discontent," which is probably Shakepeare's second most famous monologue after Hamlet's soliloquy. No matter HOW badly off Barrymore was, he should have known that much in his sleep. I could imagine needing prompts on much of the rest of the show, but not that.

Ernst played the role with his usual skill and power, which, oddly enough, was the problem I had with his interpretation. I didn't see him as a sixty-year old alcoholic who'd lead a hard life and was nearing death. Although parts of the performance called for energy, I thought we needed to see a more febrile and fleeting energy, last reserves of strength being called on, rather than the expression of Ernst's still youthful vigor. The highs were too energetically high, and the lows perhaps not low enough.

All this aside, it was still a facinating performance, and we were glad to have seen it.
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