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January 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 28, 2005

A fabulous farce A fabulous farce (January 28, 2005)

TheatreWorks' 'Shakespeare in Hollywood' a laugh-out-loud fest

by Jeanie Forte

Playwright Ken Ludwig's conceit in his newest play, "Shakespeare in Hollywood," is decidedly clever and intelligent -- but don't let that, or the Bard's name in the title, fool you if you're wary of the classics. It's also wacky and fun, with colorful characters and non-stop action.

TheatreWorks' production is the West Coast premiere of this delightful play, directed by Artistic Director Robert Kelley at a fast and furious pace befitting a farce. Well-cast and equipped with TheatreWorks' excellent production values, the show is an apt tribute to the company's longevity and its 35th anniversary.

The story has two Shakespearean characters, Oberon (Don Carrier) and Puck (Rebecca Dines) from "A Midsummer Night's Dream", transported into the present day by some quirk of magic. Only they're not actors playing those roles -- they're the actual Oberon and Puck, as if they're Shakespeare's muses who inspired his writing. They find themselves suddenly on a Warner Brothers set, where Max Reinhardt (Gerald Hiken) is preparing to shoot a film of "Midsummer."

Here's where history mingles with fantasy, since Reinhardt really did direct such a film, starring Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Mickey Rooney, Victor Jory and James Cagney, among other notables of 1935.

In Ludwig's version, we get de Havilland (Lisa Anne Morrison), Powell (Craig W. Marker), Cagney (Noel Wood) and Joe E. Brown (Robb Bauer), but also a stereotypical bimbo starlet named Lydia (Lucy Owen), who appears to be the reason behind Jack Warner (Gary S. Martinez) doing the film. She's fictional, and the truth is that studios battled for the rights to do Reinhardt's stage version on film. But Ludwig's fantasy is funnier and sets up a comedic premise that pays off grandly in later scenes.

The two "real" Shakespeare characters end up being cast in Reinhardt's film, becoming involved with mere mortals and causing mayhem in a plot that parallels "Midsummer" but doesn't mimic it. Couples are mixed up and lovers torn asunder, leading to a wild farce of a party. Toss in Louella Parsons (Susan Grodner) trying to scoop the on-set gossip and Will Hayes (William Todd Tressler) trying to censor the oh-so bawdy Bard, and you have a recipe for a laugh-out-loud fest.

Yet the resolution also parallels "Midsummer" in its celebration of love and the stuff of dreams. In a sense, Ludwig has found the perfect setting for a modern-day retelling of "Midsummer," for where else are dreams so palpable, so ardently pursued, as they are in Hollywood? Ludwig's ending suddenly and surprisingly delivers its own sweet magic.

Carrier as Oberon especially shines, his Shakespearean training obviously aiding in his creation of a memorable and strong character. He's got the perfect look and the impeccable timing as well -- a real find. Pairing him with Dines as Puck is genius on Kelley's part -- her mugging and prancing are a great foil for Oberon's kingliness. And her expressiveness and broad physicality also make for a very funny embodiment of a well-known character.

It was a real treat to see Hiken on a local stage again -- and in a leading role. He's absolutely wonderful as Reinhardt, demonstrating his trademark comic skills, communicating volumes with a simple raised eyebrow or "take" to the audience. He has a mischievous twinkle and delight in the role that charms us -- his seasoned professionalism gives him an easy demeanor and a terrific stage presence.

Morrison and Marker quite ably bring de Havilland and Powell to life, as the pretty ingenue and experienced heartthrob. Wood sounds and looks amazingly like Cagney, with the gestures and walk to match. Bauer steals the show as a hapless Joe E. Brown, cross-dressed in the role of Thisbe and victim of Puck's bungled pollinating.

Grodner displays her excellent comedic skills as Parsons, but cracked me up even more in a bit role as head costume mistress. Tressler does a wonderful turn as Hayes, getting hysterically funny in the party scene and later (I can't give it away).

Owen and Martinez are solid as Lydia and Warner, even if Lydia's accent is hard to sort out at times. Their pairing works well comedically, and sets up much of the play's humor.

Thanks to Kelley for such great casting, and for his excellent direction -- this one just seems to roll off the stage without a hitch. I know that's not true, though -- farces like this have to be choreographed and timed just so in order to succeed, and I commend Kelley and cast for hitting all the right marks. My one quibble: Too much shouting at some points for my taste, but it's kind of the style.

Kudos to Andrea Bechert for her simple and evocative sets, and to Fumiko Bielefeldt for fabulous period and Shakespearean costumes. Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt is effectively moody, and I love the big-band music in Cliff Caruthers' sound design. The production as a whole is very coherent and beautifully realized.

By the way, you don't need to know "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to appreciate the play, although a basic knowledge of the plot might help. Allow the excellent acting and humor of Ludwig's conceit to work its magic, and you'll have an evening of enjoyment and laughter.

What; "Shakespeare in Hollywood," presented by TheatreWorks. The play was written by Ken Ludwig.

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. (corner of Mercy)

When: Through Feb. 13. Show times are Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. (no performance Feb. 8); Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. (8 p.m. only Feb. 12); Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. (2 p.m. only Feb. 6 and 13). "Visual Voice" audio-described performances are available Feb. 11-12 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 13 at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $20-$50; discounts are available for youth, students, seniors and members.

Info: Call (650) 903-6000 or visit

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