Ellen Karas as Louella Parsons - Adam Richman as Jimmy Cagney (Arena Stage).jpg

Ellen Karas as Louella Parsons - Adam Richman as Jimmy Cagney (Arena Stage)

PC: Scott Suchman


The Phoenix

Good Theater takes Hollywood to the Hill
March 7, 2007

This world luxuriates in cool, expensive black-and-white. The chic Art Deco detailing, the Oscar statuette, and the potted plant in urn are all arrayed in sumptuous gradations of silver, gray, and white. Everything here catches and throws the light, or else holds and simmers it in the soft matte of brushed nickel. There is only one lavish setting that the sign across this proscenium could announce, and it is “Hollywood.”

The place is a gleaming archetype, and the age is Golden. In Good Theater’s lustrous current farce, we find ourselves in the Warner Brothers Studios, circa 1934. German emigré director Max Reinhart (Steven Leighton) is about to sell Jack Warner (Bob McCormack) on a movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they’ll soon sign Hollywood greats James Cagney (Craig Ela) and Dick Powell (Brian Chamberlain), not to mention Warner’s brash blonde chorus girl of a paramour, Lydia Lansing (Kathleen Kimball).

But among all the industry regulars are two more emigrés, who are from even farther away than Germany, and who have the strangest habit of speaking in some of the finest iambic verse known to man. They are the fairy king Oberon (Stephen Underwood) and his sidekick Puck (Jesse Leighton), the very stars of Shakespeare’s whimsies, who have been mysteriously spirited to the Warner lot. It turns out that they are no more immune than anyone else to the glitter of Lala-land in Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood, airily directed by Brian Allen.

Strangers in a strange land, Puck and Oberon soon enough pick up the lingo (“chicks,” “stars”) and the looks (sunglasses), and find that their normal sylvan mischief has plenty of applications among the mortal fools of Hollywood. This proves even more true when the snotty Will Hays (Mark Rubin, absolutely pitch-perfect), of the Hays Commission, orders Reinhart to cut out all of the film’s “obscenity;” and when Oberon falls for the smart and comely Olivia Darnell (the delightful Jen Means), who’s cast as Hermia. And so, as if there weren’t already enough rampant attraction in this town to go around, the fairies introduce their famously dangerous flower, love-in-idleness, into the mix. Sexual chaos, including transvestism and a particularly perverse case of self-love, ensues.

The men in charge of the various forms of magic are all big and beautifully drawn characters.

McCormack’s Warner is a classic bull-headed businessman, whose bottom-line m.o. is nevertheless tempered by a charming weakness for his Lydia. As Reinhart, Steven Leighton has enormous charisma, and singlehandedly does a lot for binding this show’s dreamy Hollywood spell. And as Oberon, the lean and spritely Underwood has an appealingly boyish eagerness. It’s a delight to experience Hollywood through this sanguine ingenue, and he and Means, together, have all the coy and witty sweetness of the best Golden Age pairings.

Scenic designers Janet Montgomery and Stephen Underwood, in adopting the palette of the era’s movies, have created perhaps the most mouth-watering set to come out of Good Theater yet. On costumes, Nina Jones and Joan McMahon have followed suit, garbing the denizens of Hollywood in dark suits and silver dresses. The exceptions to the chromatic scheme are Puck and Oberon, in simple green and purply rose costumes, which, although perhaps a bit too simple, play beautifully against the opulent grays.

As the industry regulars afflicted by the sprites’ colorful magic, Good Theater has cast some great character roles. I was dying to see a little more of Craig Ela’s big and blustery James Cagney. The wonderfully versatile Amy Roche has a good time in the role of Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons, and Mark Rubin makes a really superlative asshole of the sneering Will Hays. And many portrayals, most particularly those of Lydia by Kimball and Dick Powell by Chamberlain, ring strikingly true as Hollywood archetypes, right down to how they talk — listen for Lydia’s direct-from-Brooklyn showgirl brassiness, for Dick’s musical and lady-catching low murmur.

What all these Hollywood types say is as entertaining as how they say it, and Ludwig’s script plays with their language, mingling stylized American vernacular — the classic Hollywood “darling” this and that, baseball idioms, Lydia’s transplant Brooklynese — mingled amidst the iambic pentameter of the Bard.

Shakespeare in Hollywood is not heavy fare. It’s a fanciful, hybridized farce, and Allen directs with an appropriately breezy touch. Glittery and light, Good Theater’s show is such stuff as the nation’s Hollywood dreams are made on: it’s tinsel, and the most bewitching around.

Shakespeare in Hollywood | by Ken Ludwig | Directed by Brian Allen | Produced by Good Theater, at the St. Lawrence, in Portland | through March 25 | 207.885.5883

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