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Emily Donahoe as Puck and Casey Biggs as Oberon in Shakespeare in Hollywood, Arena Stage; PC: Scott Suchman
Reviews

No holds Bard! This Shakespeare worth giving hoot.

by MICHAEL KILIAN
October 9, 2003

WASHINGTON -- In this space a couple of weeks ago, I advanced the perhaps heretical notion that Shakespeare's comedies, however classic, are not necessarily laff riots.

I now hasten to amend that assertion by acknowledging that they actually can be hilarious -- when woven into somebody else's comedy.

That certainly was true of Tom Stoppard's "Dogg's Hamlet" and "Shakespeare in Love," and it's true again in Ken Ludwig's newest laff riot, "Shakespeare in Hollywood," now on the boards at Washington's Arena Stage.

As his Broadway hits "Lend Me a Tenor," "Crazy for You" and "Moon Over Buffalo" attest, Ludwig is nutty about backstage farce. A Cambridge University-educated Shakespeare lecturer, he also is a bit batty about the Bard and has combined these two fancies in a work built around the notion of Warner Brothers making a Depression-era film comedy of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Chicago flavoring

Directed by Chicago's Kyle Donnelly and starring Casey Biggs, Maggie Lacey, Robert Prosky, Alice Ripley and Emily Donahoe, Ludwig's "Shakespeare in Hollywood" has Brechtian-era German Expressionist stage director Max Rheinhardt improbably helming the 1935 film with an oddball cast of James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia DeHavilland and Victor Jory, hectored along the way by Louella Parsons and all four quarreling Warner brothers.

The most ridiculous thing about all this is that it actually happened -- a culture clash of titanic proportions that produced one of the more memorable films of the period.

Ludwig actually was commissioned to whip up his confection by no less lofty an establishment than England's Royal Shakespeare Company.

"I was approached by the RSC about doing a play, and what I tried to get them to agree to was a play about [18th Century impresario] David Garrick and the Stratford Jubilee of 1769 -- a big party Garrick put on in Stratford for three days that put Shakespeare back on the map, historically," said Ludwig.

The RSC told Ludwig that, amazingly, they'd just commissioned someone else to do a play about exactly that, and sent him back to his drawing board.

"I went back to my hotel room that night and thought, `What about something to do with Shakespeare and the movies?' he said. "It's been such a hot topic."

He noted that since Kenneth Branagh's electrifying 1989 film "Henry V," there has been a wave of some 20 Shakespeare movies that have included even a "Hamlet" starring Ethan Hawke and Bill Murray and another starring action hero "Mel Gibson."

"I'd be able to comment on things I love about Shakespeare," he said, "and at the same time play into my strength, which is comedy about theater folk."

The result is what Curtain Up magazine calls "a fast-paced comedy, right out of the screwball 1930s films to which it pays homage."

As a twist, Ludwig has added the fantastical Oberon and Puck to the movieland melee, having them take a wrong turn on their way back to "the Forest of Arden" after the conclusion of their midsummer night's dream.

"Hollywood is a lot like `the Forest of Arden' and `a Wood near Athens,'" Ludwig said. "It's a place of magic where anything can happen. It can transform lives overnight."

For the villain of the piece, he has seized upon one-time Warren G. Harding campaign manager, postmaster general and Presbyterian elder Will Hays, head of the notoriously censorious Hays Office that virtually banned sex from the screen for several decades (even though Harding was one of the most self-indulgent philanderers ever to occupy the White House).

The natural

As portrayed here by New York theatrical cult figure Everett Quinton, Hays would be a natural for his own modern-day conservative cable TV talk show -- if not a nut house.

Leading lady Lacey, a Cleveland-born New Yorker who recently starred on Broadway as Emily in the Paul Newman revival of "Our Town," plays heroine Olivia in the style of Hollywood comediennes Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur.

"I just love those screwball heroines from the 1930s," she said. "They weren't subservient to the men; they had minds of their own, and you never knew what they were going to do."

The New York University theater school graduate was eager to do something with laughs, having had to die in "Our Town," have her neck broken in a recent production of "Of Mice and Men" and do bleak Max Fritsch stuff in an Off-Broadway "Andorra."

"I'd heard of Kyle Donnelly before and was anxious to get to work with her," she said. "I knew about Ken's comedies, and I was dying to do a comedy."

The magic ingredient in the show, she said, is Shakespeare.

"Ken told us that one of his desires is that the audience comes to love Shakespeare as much as he does, and I think that comes through," she said. "It's also the way he weaves Shakespearean elements throughout the play."

Producers in England, New York and points west are looking at the show. Wherever it goes next, Ludwig said he wants to keep the cast intact.

In the meantime, his 21st Century adaptation of the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Broadway/Hollywood farce "20th Century" (meaning the train) opens on Broadway with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche in January.

Hecht and MacArthur weren't exactly Shakespeare, but that doesn't mean they aren't funny.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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