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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Shakespeare in Hollywood
is an Entertaining Escapade

Also see Richard's reviews of Epiphanies and Mambo Italiano

Ken Ludwig’s latest farce, Shakespeare In Hollywood, is having its West Coast premiere at TheatreWorks with a classy cast of movieland characters who would put Jack Warner to shame. The rollicking production plays through February 13 at the Mountain View Theatre for Performing Arts.

Ludwig poked fun at community theatre in Lend Me a Tenor and Broadway in Moon Over Buffalo. He now takes aim at Hollywood in the '30s and the studio system through a clash of cultures between “movies and money,” as Jack Warner puts it in the play, and “real” Shakespearian actors during the Bard’s day. The result is a low-brow farce with ludicrous puns, hackneyed jokes and pure pandemonium. It stereotypes every film person from ego-driven Warner to the frustrated European director Max Reinhardt to an over-the-top bimbo starlet trying to speak Shakespeare’s words.

Shakespeare in Hollywood premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in September, 2003 where it received good notices. Since then it has played only at Loyola University in New Orleans with students for one week last November. The farce is to be presented by the Lyric Stage Company in Boston in May of this year. There is still a slight chance it will be to New York, either on or off Broadway; it needs top flight actors who can act in farcical situations.

Shakespeare in Hollywood
Don Carrier (Oberon) and Rebecca Dines (Puck) encounter a cast of characters

Ken Ludwig’s comedy has a simple premise involving the filming of distinguished European Max Reinhardt’s version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream at Warner Brothers. In actual fact, Jack wanted to film the project to give the studio some prestige and be the first to film a Shakespeare play, since Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford starred in The Taming of the Shrew in 1929. However, in this play, the playwright takes a different track when Lydia Lansing, Jack’s girlfriend and studio star, demands a prestige picture to showcase her “limited talents.”

The “real” Oberon and Puck from Shakespeare’s day have taken a wrong turn in their time travel and landed right on the sound stage of a Burbank lot, just before shooting begins. As luck would have it, Victor Jory, who was to play Oberon, walks off the picture and Mickey Rooney, who is to play Puck, has broken his leg. Max Reinhardt is ecstatic to have two wonderful, real Shakespearean actors. What follows is a farce that involves the likes of Will Hayes, Joe E. Brown, Jimmy Cagney, Dick Powell, Louella Parsons, Olivia De Havilland, the bimbo Lydia and brothers Warner. It also involves that famous flower that makes the first person you see upon awaking fall immediately in love with you. This makes for some hilarious couplings.

Shakespeare in Hollywood is not Ludwig at his best. It’s full of slapstick-style humor, impossible puns and contrived couplings when Puck’s magic flower falls into the wrong hands in the second act. This is a one-joke situation that should have better material. If this farce ever reaches New York, there will be some changes.

Robert Kelly has done a commendable job of collecting a group of actors who are in sync with the comedic timing of the piece, although a few overact a bit. Don Carrier (six years at Stratford Festival of Canada and other plays by the Bard throughout the states) is excellent as the “real” Oberon. He has the perfect speech for Shakespeare’s words as he speaks various lines from the play. Rebecca Dines (Living Out, Man Who Came to Dinner, Present Laughter at Theatre Works and receiver of two San Francisco Bay Theatre Critics Award) plays Puck like a British punk star. She is delightful with her speech inflections and jaunty movements about stage.

Gerald Hiken (veteran stage, film and television actor) brings both vision and reality to Max Reinhardt. His nervous fits as a European director trying to helm an American movie is par excellence. Gary S. Martinez (Forces of Nature at Playhouse West) is spot on as Jack Warner. He portrays the man with the right amount of skepticism and hounding, yet is meek and mild with his brothers and his movie star bimbo girlfriend. Craig W. Marker does a fine job as the loveable Dick Powell using some of the mannerisms that Powell used in the early Warner films.

Lisa Ann Morrison (Los Angeles actress in Actor’s Gang, Laguna Playhouse, Colony Theatre) plays the new young actress from the midwest, Olivia, with appropriate sincerity while Lucy Owen (The Seagull at Porchlight Theatre plus several shows with the PCPA players) plays Lydia like a true Hollywood blonde bimbo, destined only to play in sexual films. Her speech reminds me of Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday; even when she recites the Bard’s word backwards it is a howl.

Robb Bauer (New York and Washington D.C. actor) is Joe E. Brown. He looks like the famous '30s comedian and he has all of the mannerisms down pat. However, it would have been nice if he had given out one of Joe famous yells. Noel Wood makes a good Cagney, though he sometimes lapses into JFK. Cyril Jamal Cooper plays Jack Warner’s yes man perfectly, bowing and scraping before the great man. Wm. Todd Tressler makes a good Will Hayes, but he seems to go over the top when the magic flower hits his eyes at Jack Warner’s party. Suzanne Grodner is good, though too beautiful, as Louella Parsons.

Andrea Beckert has designed a set that reflects the '30s Hollywood studio while Fumiko Bielefieldt has designed some gorgeous outfits for the film stars. Director Robert Kelly keeps the pace fast and furious. Having worked at the studio from 1951 to 1976, I can say that Robert Kelly, Ken Ludwig's words and the set and costumes are right on the mark.

Shakespeare in Hollywood plays at the Mountain View Theatre for Performing Arts, 500 Castro, Mountain View through February 13. For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. The next production will be the Northern California premiere of Vincent in Brixton, which opens at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto on March 9th.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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