Hollywood hilarity, thanks to the Bard

By J. Wynn Rousuck
Baltimore Sun Theater Critic
September 16, 2003

What happens when two savvy playwrights from very different centuries collaborate? In the case of skilled modern farceur Ken Ludwig and Renaissance wonder William Shakespeare, the result is Shakespeare in Hollywood, a play that is at once poignant and funny, literary and farcical, sophisticated and silly, political and fanciful, high-brow and low-brow.

A no-holds-barred take on the making of Max Reinhardt's 1935 movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the new comedy may be the best work yet by this Washington-based playwright whose Broadway successes - Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You - have been none too shabby.

Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, but never produced there, Shakespeare in Hollywood is receiving a sparkling world premiere at Washington's Arena Stage. If there's any justice, Britain's loss should be New York's gain.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare set four distinct groups of characters on a collision course - the nobility, the fairies, a quartet of young lovers and a band of rude "mechanicals," or tradesmen. In Shakespeare in Hollywood, Ludwig adds another world of characters - the denizens of Hollywood.

It's a world that thinks of itself as noble, but is actually pretty rude. It also sees itself as a city of fantasies, but when a pair of genuinely fanciful characters - Oberon, the fairy king, and Puck, his minion - land there by accident, the magic of Tinseltown is shown to be as thin as celluloid.

Bringing Oberon and Puck into the mix is the most imaginative leap Ludwig has ever taken, and it pays off. The conceit is that, on their way home, the pair followed a sign that said "A Wood Near Athens," but that sign turned out to be on the soundstage of Reinhardt's movie.

"Could we be dreaming?" asks Emily Donahoe's mischievous Puck.

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on," replies Casey Biggs' strikingly noble Oberon, tossing out one of many quotes from assorted Shakespeare plays with which the fairy king peppers his speech.

Through various fortuitous events, Oberon and Puck wind up playing themselves in Reinhardt's movie, and Oberon unexpectedly falls in love with a mortal - Olivia, the actress playing Hermia (given an adorably wide-eyed portrayal by Maggie Lacey).

Nor are those the only complications Ludwig has in store. Studio head Jack Warner (Rick Foucheux) is only making this picture because he's been coerced by his bit-player girlfriend, Lydia (bawdily portrayed by Alice Ripley as a brash, hip-swiveling combination of Born Yesterday's Billie Dawn and Guys and Dolls' Miss Adelaide). This blond doxy has been cast as Helena, and it's almost worth the price of admission to hear Ripley's Lydia demonstrate to Reinhardt that Shakespeare's speeches make as much sense backward as forward.

Yet another complication takes the form of Will Hays, the motion-picture censor who wrote the prudishly restrictive Hays Code and who is vehemently opposed to what he regards as a licentious script. To get back at Hays, Oberon dispatches Puck to fetch the flower that makes "man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees." In A Midsummer Night's Dream, that flower leads to some unintentional couplings; Ludwig takes Shakespeare's example to even further extremes.

By the time the second act begins - at a party to celebrate the first day's filming - Ludwig's play is in full farce mode, with mismatched twosomes and threesomes careening across Arena's broad stage at a manic pace, orchestrated by director Kyle Donnelly. Without giving it away, the effect the charmed flower has on Everett Quinton's Hays is Ludwig's most inspired use of this particular bit, and Quinton's depiction of the thoroughly besotted Hays is a hoot.

Part of the joy of Ludwig's play is realizing how true he remains to Shakespeare's example - not just in terms of characters and plot twists, but thematically as well. Just as Shakespeare's comedies have a serious side, so does Ludwig gently but effectively make his point about the ephemeral nature of life and the importance of taking a chance on love. (The play's darker side even includes peripheral references to the rise of Nazism, portents brought up by the character of Reinhardt, who came to America to flee Hitler.)

In addition to the sterling performances noted above, Hugh Nees makes a marvelously galumphing Joe E. Brown (who played the drag role of Thisbe in Reinhardt's film) and Michael Skinner is appropriately nerdy and put-upon as Warner's "yes-man" assistant. Among the few disappointments are David Fendig, who is oddly awkward and unappealing as heartthrob Dick Powell, and, surprisingly, the usually superb Robert Prosky, whose Reinhardt speaks in an uneven and at times unintelligible accent.

Although Thomas Lynch's set is more serviceable than magical, Jess Goldstein's glittering costumes enhance the show's supernatural aura, as does Susan R. White's sound design, which blends period music with mystical tinkly tones.

Most of all, however, it's the cunning way Ludwig combines the feel of madcap 1930s comedies with Shakespeare that makes this genre-bending work such a delight.

Ludwig has found a canvas big enough to encompass some of his airiest characters and weightiest themes. Shakespeare in Hollywood is so deliciously inventive, you'd swear Ludwig and the Bard were in cahoots.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun


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