BARRYMORE at BRT: An Actor’s Dramatic Encounter With His Past

by Jean and Bill Brenner

Keith Baker never ceases to amaze. He acts. He sings, He directs. He plays piano. He conducts. He writes and arranges musicales. He helps to plan the theatre season at BRT. And clearly, he can memorize one heck of a lot of lines.

Keith Baker and William Selby in a scene from Bristol Riverside Theatre's BARRYMORE, running in Bristol PA through October 30. (Photo courtesy of Bristol Riverside Theatre)

Once again, Baker demonstrates his remarkable talents in the current production at Bristol Riverside Theatre, BARRYMORE, where he portrays John Barrymore in a strong, interesting performance. The Barrymore name is synonymous with generations of a theatre family, including Drew Barrymore (John was her grandfather).

Program notes point out that Barrymore was the most popular actor in America, considered the quintessential leading man, when he decided, at age 38, to try his hand at playing Shakespearean roles. His performance as Richard III surprised his devotees, and just three years later, he played Hamlet, the performance which was considered the first great enactment of the role in the century.

But successful as he once was, four failed marriages later and nearing the end of his career, alcoholism and self-mockery claimed him. The pinnacle had passed. He became pathetic, sad, full of memories of grandeur and dreams of a rebirth.

That’s where BARRYMORE begins…on a day one month before John Barrymore’s death. The once-acclaimed actor, now broke, broken, and suffering from the DT’s searches for his former glory on a rented-for-the-day New York stage.

He tries to relearn lines from HAMLET and RICHARD III. Instead, other memories constantly surface as he remembers with derision and delight his wives, his conquests with women, his successes on the stage. He tells jokes – many of them off-color – and although he cannot remember the lines, he remembers the bottles of liquor he carried with him.

The only other actor in the play, his Prompter, devotedly tries to help prompt lines even as he surreptitiously hides the booze.

Delusional in the morning at the start of the play, Barrymore’s desperate character study continues as he lives in the past, unable to move forward.

The set design by Roman Tatarowicz, an accomplished designer, is brilliantly conceived and executed. Old set pieces are strategically stacked; swords and rapiers in one box, overturned chairs, platforms, stairs, a princely chair, theatre seats on the side, a piano, a table, some chairs, a dilapidated proscenium arch, torn curtains. Everything is perfectly placed for Barrymore to circulate around and between while keeping an appropriate pace.

The Prompter is portrayed by William Selby, a fine actor with a long list of credits from New York to California. His is a supporting role, but it is an important one. He provides diversion for the audience and counterpoint to Barrymore, showing respect for the once-famous actor as he tries unsuccessfully to stop the downward spiral of self-destruction happening.

Jon Marans directed this production, and did it well, giving merit to basically a thin script. Staging and character development made the show visually interesting and believable.

Lighting design is by Deborah Constantine; sound design is by Mike Troncone; costume design by Linda Bee Stockton; Production Manager is William S. Crandall; and Production Stage Manager is Christine Lomaka.

Bristol Riverside Theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, a huge achievement for Susan D. Atkinson, Founding Director.

BRT’S next production, Steve Solomon’s one-man comedy, MY MOTHER’S ITALIAN, MY FATHER’S JEWISH, AND I’M IN THERAPY runs November 2–6.

By William Luce
Directed by Jon Marans
October 11 – 30, 2011
Bristol Riverside Theatre
120 Radcliffe St.
Bristol, PA 19007

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