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Robert Redford’s original ‘Barefoot in the Park’ co-star is back at Bucks County Playhouse

Mike Nichols directed Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in New Hope when all of them were young. She's back for Paul Rudnick's "I Hate Hamlet."

Tom Hewitt and Elizabeth Ashley in "I Hate Hamlet," through Dec. 1 at the Bucks County Playhouse.
Tom Hewitt and Elizabeth Ashley in "I Hate Hamlet," through Dec. 1 at the Bucks County Playhouse.Read moreJoan Marcus

Some serious Broadway firepower is involved with Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet, through Dec. 1 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope. Rudnick apparently attended rehearsals, for one thing, and added some contemporary references and one-liners to update the play.

Marc Bruni, who directed Beautiful: The Carole King Story on Broadway, directs here, and Ben Fankhauser, from the original Broadway cast of Newsies, plays the protagonist. Broadway guy Tom Hewitt (Lion King, Jesus Christ Superstar) plays the ghost of John Barrymore.

And then there's Elizabeth Ashley, Tony-winner, stage and film veteran, back for her first time at Bucks County Playhouse since 1963, when she played opposite youngster Robert Redford in an early version of Barefoot in the Park.

She plays Lillian, a German agent and former lover of Barrymore's.

As for Barefoot back in the day, "Neil Simon had one act, no second act, and we had this young, untried director, Mike Nichols," Ashley says with a laugh.

"Soon as I was done, I was off to California for the film The Carpetbaggers, then back to Broadway to do, what else, Barefoot in the Park!? I was just the ingénue of the moment. What does a 22-year-old know, you know?"

How's it feel to be returning?

If you ignore the stresses of moving, great, says Ashley, 79, whose son is helping her relocate temporarily to New Hope.

She came into the play as a replacement for her friend, actress Penny Fuller (All the President's Men and much else). "So I had only a few rehearsals," Ashley says. "The more I work with I Hate Hamlet, the more I love it.

"With all the trauma recently injected into the collective unconscious, laughter may not be a cure, it might be a relief. We are just carnival players, but maybe laughter is what we can offer."

And in other theater news this week: ‘The Color Purple’ is extended … again

Musicals are everything now, as we know. And, in Philly especially, the "intimate musical" is at peak interest – the Quintessence production of My Fair Lady, for example, was that theater's biggest hit ever, and one of the best things I saw in 2017.

And now comes news that the run for the sprawling epic The Color Purple has just been extended — for a second time, to Dec. 23 — at the intimate Theatre Horizon in Norristown.

Theatre Horizon may be a small theater, with the audience in the company's lap and vice versa, but director (and Temple prof) Amina Robinson sees that as a great opportunity to tell the story in a new way. "The question is: How can we take something epic and make it intimate and specific and person-focused?"

Transitions, scene changes, and set design are enormous challenges in The Color Purple. "But as a woman," she says, "I felt the story as moving fluidly, and I looked for a way to give us that feeling."

>> READ MORE: Theater Horizon's 'The Color Purple': Original, fiery update to the classic musical

The solution: fabric. "Fabric can be very flowing," she says, "and it can, when knotted, be very hard. I think we've used it wisely."

Curtains and draperies suggest what divides people in time, place, emotions; they peek through to establish connection. And fabrics connect with a main through-line of the play: After all, the main character, Celie, is an expert seamstress who turns her way with fabrics into a clothes store and financial independence.

"The schedule was insane, but the cast has been completely blowing my mind," Robinson says. "We had a full run-through of the whole show on only the ninth day of rehearsals, which is crazy. And the voices are – I can't take it! I run around the theater because I get so excited when they sing."