“Shakespeare in Hollywood” is a madcap and meaningless send-up of Tinseltown’s enduring love affair with the Bard.
District playwright Ken Ludwig’s comedy is as frothy and substance-free as anything starring Reese Witherspoon. A vapid and lively bit of fluff, it is directed with light, daffy energy by Kyle Donnelly. Miss Donnelly knows how to use the limitations of the Fichandler’s round stage to her advantage, keeping the screwball comedy running at spiraling speed with plenty of sight gags (Tarzan, the Bride of Frankenstein and the piano from “Casablanca” are among the cameos) and a rhythmic pace that pings and careens like popcorn kernels in hot oil.
For Mr. Ludwig’s part, he has crafted a comedy that slickly blends farce, fact, and fantasy. The premise takes an already ridiculous, albeit factually based, idea — the lowbrow Warner Bros. studio of Hollywood’s Golden Age filming “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of Shakespeare’s wittiest, richest comedies — and ups the ante. Mr. Ludwig has the “real” Oberon (Casey Biggs) and Puck (Emily Donahoe) pop up — outside of the textual confines of Shakespeare’s comedy — on the set. They are cast in the movie and receive a crash course in what passes for reality in 1930s Tinseltown. In the process, they create jumbles of mischief — chiefly concerning a certain flower, the juice from which makes you fall in love with the first person you see — because they just can’t help themselves.
This tricky juggling act is kept aloft by a steady stream of shameless puns and humor that goofs on classic Hollywood while spoofing Shakespearean conventions. The play has a broad, commercial appeal, and you remember it as fondly as you did your last breath mint.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was actually filmed by Warner Bros. in 1935 by the esteemed Austrian director Max Reinhardt. The movie boasts some bizarre facts of its own, particularly pertaining to the cast, which included Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Jimmy Cagney, Joe E. Brown and Mickey Rooney (nursing a broken leg) as Puck.
Mr. Ludwig’s backstage comedy includes the Hitler-obsessed Reinhardt, played with canny good humor by Robert Prosky, Mr. Powell (David Fendig), Mr. Cagney (Adam Richman), and Mr. Brown (Hugh Nees). Other real-life characters are also prominent — cigar-chomping movie mogul Jack Warner (Rick Foucheux), attention-starved gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Ellen Karas), and the unctuous film censor Will Hays (played with braying ebullience by, of all people, Everett Quinton, longtime member of the Ridiculous Theater Company).
The playwright has added some high jinks of his own in the composite characters, especially Lydia Lansing (Alice Ripley), a platinum blond former chorus girl turned “serious” thespian who is fluent in two languages — Brooklynese and hip wiggles. Miss Ripley may be va-va-voom, but she has the instincts of a born clown in her mastery of physical shenanigans. Her mauling of Shakespeare’s language — in one memorable scene, it makes more sense to her backward — bears a cordial resemblance to Jennifer Tilly’s hilarious turn in the movie “Bullets Over Broadway.”
Mr. Ludwig’s other creation seems more a product of the Hollywood dream factory. Olivia Darnell (Maggie Lacey) is one of those liquid-eyed, daintily trembly actresses of the Olivia de Havilland-Linda Darnell mold, and her melting earnestness is not lost on Oberon, who falls in love with the mere mortal.
Mr. Biggs, who has not graced the local stage in many years, is grand as Oberon, possessing kingly majesty and the gentleness of a spirit as well as a stage voice that is powerful and pliant. He comes off as someone truly from another realm, whether he is struggling with the language (mistakenly calling Hollywood stars “moons” and celluloid “flim”) or trying to reconcile the magical qualities of his kingdom with the flickering shadows of the film world.
When he returns to the forest outside of Athens at the end of the play, you keenly sense both his airiness and the weight of his presence.
On the other hand, Puck (played with crowing swagger by Miss Donahoe) is eager to assimilate as quickly as possible, shedding his fairy costume for a snappy suit, shades, a Rolex and tooling around the studio lot in a golf cart.
“Shakespeare in Hollywood” maintains its escapist, retro-zippy aura to the end. Perhaps to its detriment, because, with the exception of Mr. Biggs’ Oberon and Mr. Nees as the briefly bedazzled character actor Joe E. Brown (when he is cast back into second-tier stardom late in the second act, the audience sighed for him), there is no character you care about.
Everyone is simply too blithe, too broadly drawn and acted.
It is asking for trouble to have actors play famous film stars, as evidenced by Mr. Richman and Mr. Fendig, who do not resemble in any way, shape or form Jimmy Cagney and Dick Powell.
The oddest thing about “Shakespeare in Hollywood” is how Mr. Ludwig preaches to the choir. Do theater audiences really need to be given the hard sell on the Bard?
WHAT: “Shakespeare inHollywood” by Ken Ludwig
WHERE: Arena Stage, Fichandler Theatre, 1101 Sixth St. SW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; selected Tuesday and Wednesday matinees at noon. Through Oct. 19.
TICKETS: $40 to $53
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS