Art Imitates Art
Ken Ludwig's 'Shakespeare in Hollywood' works through comedic layers at the Western Stage
By Kathryn Petruccelli
Monterey County Herald Correspondent
At one time or another all of us have found ourselves hanging out with friends playing the "what would happen if" game.
For most of us it's a form of short-lived amusement. If you're Ken Ludwig, however, you go home and write a play about it. "Shakespeare in Hollywood" is such a play.
This madcap comedy has Shakespeare's Oberon (King of Fairies) and his sidekick Puck of the play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" tripping onto the set of the 1935 film made of said play by Austrian director Max Reinhardt.
This is the launching pad from which Ludwig takes off with what The Western Stage director William Wolak calls "carefully planned chaos."
"He's very well-read. He's a zany, funny person," said Wolak, who has heard the playwright speak on several occasions. "He's studied comedy seriously; and he believes in comedy that makes people laugh."
Lugwig is the author of other notable comedies, such as "Moon Over Buffalo," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," and a new adaptation of "Twentieth Century."
"Shakespeare in Hollywood" shows at the Western Stage beginning Friday through Sunday, Aug. 27, and at the Sunset Center in Carmel Sept. 8-10, with a gala benefit performance and auction scheduled for Sept. 9.
Originally commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company, the play ultimately proved too offbeat for management and instead had its premiere in 2003 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It won the Helen Hayes Award as Best Play of the Year.
"As with all farce comedy, anybody's fair game," noted Wolak.
The director said the play "takes a good satirical shot at Hollywood." Indeed, 1930s Tinseltown is up for a roast.
We have the producer who falls in love with the chorus girl and makes her a star. Gossip columnist extraordinaire, Louella Parsons (Eleanor Wyled Morrice), is on the set collecting juicy tidbits.
Will Hayes (Jim McLean) shows up, too, to enforce the infamous "Production Code" -- the movie industry's self-censoring guidelines instituted in 1930.
Hayes is particularly perturbed by Bottom (Tracy Woodward) and Thisbe (Justin Azevedo), both played by men following the Shakespearean tradition, and who dare to portray romantic counterparts.
Oberon (Jonathan Ingbretson) and Puck (Christine Silva) are far from the only ones out of their element in the play.
In fact, when actor Victor Jory, who was to play Oberon, walks off the set and Mickey Rooney, who was to play Puck, breaks his leg skiing, the "real" Oberon and Puck take over their own roles.
This detail could make the fictitious woodland nymphs perhaps more comfortable than many of the other characters portrayed, though it's true they walk about consistently spewing lines from other Shakespearean plays such as "Twelfth Night" and "Hamlet."
The Warner Brothers, who were by TWS director Wolak's diplomatic account, "not culturally advanced," have opted to strive for prestige by putting the Bard on the silver screen.
Famed director Max Reinhardt (Mark Edwards) is a recent Ã©migrÃ© in a new land. James Cagney has taken a break from his career liberally studded with gangster roles to play Bottom, the weaver.
The list of absurdities goes on. Said Wolak, "They're all coming out of type and swimming in strange waters."
Add to this some magic flowers endowed with one of the strongest love potions known to theater and "people are going around chasing themselves or others," Wolak said. "It gets increasingly crazy out of that conceit."
Said the director, watching rational people who insist on acting loopy affords the audience "a moment of superiority."
Even if you are not familiar with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," you can still enjoy "Shakespeare in Hollywood," since the characters of the latter somehow find time in the midst of the mayhem to go over the happenings of the former.
Wolak, who has 43 years experience teaching drama, said he believes Shakespeare's take on today's Hollywood would be a positive, if not self-serving one.
"I think he would find it fascinating, and he'd probably be a feature screenwriter and character actor. That's where the bucks are."
The University of the Pacific instructor related how Shakespeare took home three cuts from the Globe -- as writer, actor and part-owner. "He knew how to parlay it," said Wolak.
Last year The Western Stage left its Hartnell residence to take "Cannery Row" to Carmel audiences, and this year "Shakespeare in Hollywood" will make the bridge to the Sunset Center for three performances only.
Wherever you catch it, Wolak said "Shakespeare in Hollywood" will serve as "a place where people will go and laugh." Apparently art can imitate art, "and make fun of it," he added.
THEATER OPENING â€¢ What: The Western Stage presents Ken Ludwig's "Shakespeare in Hollywood" â€¢ Where: Hartnell College, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas; Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th Avenue, Carmel â€¢ When: Opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4; continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sunday, Aug. 27 at Hartnell College; at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Sept. 8-9 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10 at Sunset Center