Critically acclaimed American playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s hit comedy, I Hate Hamlet, had Broadway audiences rolling in the aisles during its short but glorious run. (Just think high-strung Los Angeles and New York actors in tights, visited by the ghost of legendary Hamlet and prominent American Shakespearean actor John Barrymore, while the cast struggles through rehearsals for a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Elizabethan dramatist William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy — and longest play — about a dithering Danish prince who cuts a wide bloody swath through the royal court before he, finally, avenges his father’s murder.) Raleigh Little Theatre hopes to repeat that phenomenon April 13-27 in its Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage Theatre.

“I heard about I Hate Hamlet years ago when it was running on Broadway,” says guest director Rod Rich, “and I meant to go see it, but production problems closed the show down before I had a chance to make it. (Their Barrymore, Nicol Williamson, was — much like the real John Barrymore — disposed to alcohol and impromptu behavior on the set, which resulted in injury to his co-star one night in the big duel scene that ends Act One. Shortly thereafter, the show was closed.)”

Rich says, “I Hate Hamlet is an old-fashioned, fast-talking, joke-laden boulevard comedy — one of the few of this type written in the last 15 years. And in spite of how easy it may appear at first glance to direct a show with such a wealth of comic potential, it can also be fairly intimidating — to paraphrase [“Peanuts” cartoonist] Charles Schultz, there’s no heavier burden than great potential.

“So I couldn’t resist the challenge,” Rich reveals. “The theme of the show also appeals to me — that great art is capable of changing lives. And the great art under consideration is, of course, Hamlet.”

Rich says, “Our hero, Andrew Rally (Seth Blum), is the ex-star of a recently cancelled TV medical drama who has been hired by New York’s Shakespeare in the Park to play the lead in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. Andrew is well aware that he’s a gimmick and initially takes the part because his agent, the regal and elderly German expatriot Lillian Troy (Patsy Clarke), is for it.

“But when his real estate agent, Felicia Dantine (Shawna Glad), arranges for him to move sight unseen into the sepulchral former digs of John Barrymore, it’s too much; and Andrew starts to balk, in spite of the enthusiastic encouragement and support from his girlfriend, Deirdre McDavey (Rebecca Blum).

“Just before Andrew makes the final move to drop the part and retreat back to L.A.,” Rich explains, “the ghost of John Barrymore (David McClutchey) appears as a part of some kind of traditional dead-ex Hamlet thing going on in the afterlife to help Hamlet newbies handle the incredible challenge of the role. Yet even with Barrymore’s cajoling, there is also the influence of Andrew’s friend, Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Scott Nagel), a writer-producer-director from L.A. who wants Andrew to drop Hamlet and fly back to L.A. to do a new (and completely fatuous) TV show. Will Andrew play Hamlet? Can Barrymore teach him to act — and even fence?”

Staging I Hate Hamlet presents considerable creative challenges to director Rod Rich and his production team, which includes set designer Roger Bridges, lighting designer Andy Parks, costume designer Sue Brace, special-effects designer Rick Young, sound designer Rick LaBach, fight choreographer Chris Beaulieu, and Rich’s wife, dance choreographer Nancy Rich.

“Omigod,” gasps Rod Rich. “Let’s start with the technical [challenges]. To begin with, as a ghost story, I Hate Hamlet requires an array of special effects for Barrymore’s magic abilities. Each act has several effects in it to be pulled off that we’re relying on the experience and craft of SFX designer Rick Young to do. What special effects? That would be telling!”

Rich adds, “The set for I Hate Hamlet is also a virtual character in the show. As Barrymore’s former apartment, it needs to be at times both enormously creepy and enormously theatrical — just the kind of place an L.A. actor with a taste for mid-century modern would abhor. Set Designer Roger Bridges has come up with an ingenious solution, complete with alcoves, a functional fireplace, columns, and gargoyles. (I love the gargoyles.)

“One of the biggest challenges, though, is the big sword fight that ends Act One,” claims Rich. “In a final effort to convince Andrew to play Hamlet, Barrymore produces a pair of epees and challenges the ever-reluctant Andrew. This massive piece of stage combat can be a huge challenge to smaller theaters, and many of them choose to abbreviate or eliminate it entirely.

“Fortunately,” Rich says, “Raleigh Little Theatre has a relationship with nationally certified fight choreographer Chris Beaulieu, who spent hours with our cast, designing and teaching the complicated routine. It made it a little easier in that our Barrymore, David McClutchey, is a certified stage combat performer with sword experience, and our Andrew is an athlete with a background in college fencing. Chris has designed a clever, funny sword fight for these guys that’s a terrific way to finish out the first act.”

Rich says, “The set is a mish-mash of theatrical styles grafted onto a traditional New York brownstone penthouse: high gothic arches, stone gargoyles, columns, with a staircase rising past a huge oil painting. We’ve tried to design for functionality, and to give the lighting designer as much opportunity as possible to suggest a place where things go bump in the night.”

“All of the characters in I Hate Hamlet have distinct and strong personalities, reflected in their costumes,” says Rod Rich. “Sue Brace is having a good time coming up with outfits ranging from Shakespearean to L.A. chic, with side trips through faux animal-hide prints (for the predatory Felicia) and elegant and formal (for Andrew’s agent, Lillian).”

The Village Voice called the original Broadway production of I Hate Hamlet “fast-mouthed and funny…. It has the old-fashioned Broadway virtues of brightness without pretensions and sentimentality without morals.” Newsday said the show was “full of fresh one-liners.” And The New York Times said this offbeat comedy by the author of Jeffrey (1995), Addams Family Values (1993) and In & Out (1997) was “unapologetically silly and at times hilarious … affectionately amusing about the theatre.”

Raleigh Little Theatre presents I Hate Hamlet Friday-Saturday, April 11-12, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, April 16-19 and 23-26, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 27, at 3 p.m. in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, NC. $13 Wednesday, $17 Thursday/Sunday, and $19 Friday-Saturdays, with an $11 student/senior Sunday matinee on April 13. 919/821-3111. [inactive 7/1/03].