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Theatre Review: Barrymore

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Departed celebrities from decades past can make for interesting theater, and good box office, too. In Sacramento, we've seen notable shows about tragic figures like Vivien Leigh and Maria Callas. Next week, there's a musical about Johnny Cash and Elvis.
But perhaps the best role in this blast-from-the-past category is John Barrymore, star of the 1920s and '30s. His meteoric career flamed out when his constant drinking and wild partying destroyed so many brain cells he could no longer remember his lines.           
This play opens with the dissipated Barrymore in 1942, trying to prove that he's not washed up by attempting to remount "Richard III," the Shakespearean role that made him famous 20 years earlier.
But Barrymore -- played here with gusto by veteran Gregory North -- was notorious for going off-task, and soon he's talking about his numerous ex-wives.
"Each marriage lasted seven years, like a skin rash. My troubles don't come from chasing women, they come from catching them."
He also relates the family history associated with a dirty old pair of tights he pulls off the costume rack.
"They originally belonged to Ethel. Lionel stole them, and wore them for his Macbeth tights. When I got them, I wore them for my Richard tights, and then my Hamlet tights. My dresser suggested just once that they be laundered. 'Laundered, you irreverant lout? Have you no sense of tradition? I opened in these tights, and by God, I'll close in them.'"
Barrymore also pours drink after drink, and recites ribald limericks that work well on stage but are inappropriate for radio. But every once in a while, he actually does Shakespeare, and we glimpse his former glory.          
"I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down."
More often, his memory fails, and he calls pathetically to his off-stage prompter for help.
Barrymore: "If you do fight in safeguard of your... LINE!"
Prompter: "Your wives."
Barrymore: "Your wives, shall... what? What's the line, Frank, 'Your wives shall' ... what?"
Prompter: "Your wives shall welcome... But that's not Richard's line,sir ."
Barrymore: "Well, whose line is it?"
Prompter: "Richmond's."
Barrymore: "I'll take it!"
This play offers a meandering portrait of the faded artist -- two hours with a charming but utterly dysfunctional leading man, his career wasted. You clearly sense that he really did possess greatness early on, but he's frittered almost everything away. 
It's a cautionary tale . . .but you can't help feeling for this beautiful loser, even knowing his failures.
The Sacramento Theatre Company production of "Barrymore" continues through May 6th.  
Listen to Gregory North's appearance on Insight.
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