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Shakespeare in Hollywood

by Rich See

Alice Ripley and Robert Prosky
Arena Stage's world premiere of playwright Ken Ludwig's Shakespeare In Hollywood is a fast paced comedy, right out of the screwball 1930's films to which it pays homage. From the opening sequence when a red carpet is rolled out and a scrunched-faced woman walks up with a microphone and squeakily announces "Hello out there in radio land! It's me...Louella Parsons!" You immediately get the feeling that this show is going to be a treat. Director Kyle Donnelly has made humor the number one priority, using slapstick-style brush strokes to fill in the details, and it all makes for a delightful evening of fun and witty theatre.

Continuing with his use of backstage, madcap adventures as metaphors to life's bigger dramas, Ludwig's newest "play within a play" melds fact with fiction. It follows cinema auteur Max Reinhardt's real-life 1934 quest to bring William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to the silver screen. A recent immigrant from Hitler's Germany, Reinhardt wants to see if The Bard's classic can be captured on film. To this end he seeks out Jack Warner, who is head of production at Warner Brothers Studio. Mr. Warner is less than thrilled to do an "art film" but when his girlfriend and studio star, Lydia Lansing, demands a "prestige" picture to showcase her talents, he relents -- much to the dismay of his three brothers. From there casting ensues and includes such interesting choices as song and dance man Dick Powell (played by David Fendig) and gangster-in-the-making Jimmy Cagney (portrayed by Adam Richman). In the midst of all of this business of making "talking pictures" and overnight stars, Oberon, King of the Fairies, and his sidekick Puck arrive, having taken a wrong turn on their way home from the wood near Athens. And that's when the fun really starts.

Donnelly has done an admirable job of collecting a group of actors who are so in sync with the comedic timing of the piece. The production never stalls and the pace never lags. There are several wonderful, classic Golden Age of Hollywood touches that make you smile, such as the dancing waiters at the cast party. Thomas Lynch's set is initially sparse, but that just helps you get into the mood of using your imagination to transport you into "the picture". Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler's use of spot lights sets the stage, literally and figuratively. Choreographer Karma Camp has created a wonderful dance number for the entire cast and Jess Goldstein's costumes are right out of a studio back lot.

The cast is just as equally excellent as the production crew. Ellen Karas' Louella Parsons is a riot as she brings the gossip columnist's earthy roots into full view. As Max Reinhardt, Robert Prosky, amply fills the bill, being the bridge between fantasy and reality to a backstage comedy that has an undercurrent of pathos to it as World War II looms in the distance. Lydia Lansing, as played by Alice Ripley, is a treat. Her brassy girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks is deserving of a 1930's film. It's a shame only half the audience can see her face during the first scene she performs on camera for Reinhardt. Rick Foucheux brings the right amount of cynicism and bullying to the character of Jack Warner, head of production at Warner Brothers Studio. As Oberon, Casey Biggs offers a mix of majesty and innocence, that one would expect from a fairy king lost in the future and suddenly falling in love with a movie starlet. His Puck, as portrayed by Emily Donahoe, is the brains behind the throne, at least as far as the ways of Hollywood are concerned.

Olivia Darnell, the fresh-faced young actress from the midwest is played with suitable earnestness by Maggie Lacey. Everett Quinton shines in his nefarious Will Hays role, especially when he falls in love with his own reflection. And Hugh Nees brings a touch of humanity to the jilted character actor Joe E. Brown. It should be noted -- just so you don't spend time wondering "What movie was that actress in?"-- that Olivia and Lydia, as well as Jack Warner's assistant Daryl (played by Michael Skinner), are fictional characters. The rest of the principals are based upon real individuals who were involved in the making of the actual picture.

Designed to look at the cult of celebrity and the hegemony of American culture and entertainment, Ludwig wrote Shakespeare In Hollywood on commission for London's Royal Shakespeare Company. With it he has once again created a wonderful place, not only for his fertile imagination, but for ours as well. And Arena Stage has done a grand job of bringing to life this brand new gem and best of all it's playing at a theater near you.

Shakespeare in Hollywood
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
with Ellen Karas, Robert Prosky, David Fendig, Rick Foucheux, Michael Skinner, Alice Ripley, Casey Biggs, Emily Donahoe, Maggie Lacey, Everett Quinton, Hugh Nees, Adam Richman, Bethany Caputo, Scott Graham, Eric Jorgensen and Robert McClure
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Sound Design: Susan R. White
Choreography: Karma Camp
Fight Choreography: Brad Waller
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
A production of Arena Stage
Fichandler Stage, 1101 6th Street SW
Telephone: 202-488-3300
TUE, WED & SUN @7:30, THU - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; $40 - $53
Opening 09/05/03 closing 10/19/03
Reviewed by Rich See based on 09/12/03 performance

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