THEATER REVIEW: "Shakespeare in Hollywood"
He's been dead nearly 400 years, but William Shakespeare is still one of the hardest-working men in show business. His plays remain staples of live theater, and over the past century many of them have been translated into films hundreds of times, either as direct adaptations or as the inspiration for twists on his familiar tales. Blackfriars' current production, "Shakespeare in Hollywood," has some fun with the Bard's cinematic exploits, specifically the production of Warner Bros. 1935 film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Despite some significant problems with the play itself, the production is charming and thoroughly entertaining, and a real testament to the talent of its cast and crew.
"Hollywood" was written by Ken Ludwig ("Lend Me a Tenor," "Crazy for You"), and commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Like its spiritual cousin "Kiss Me Kate," it more or less tells the story of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" vis-�-vis a fictionalized take on the filming of the 1930's movie version of the play. Many of the characters in the show are interpretations of the cast and crew of the film, including director Max Reinhardt, producer Jack Warner, and actors Dick Powell, Jimmy Cagney, and Joe E. Brown. (Curiously, both leading ladies from the film have been recast for this play.) Those real-life Hollywood types are put through their paces after the Oberon and Puck of myth (and Shakespeare's play) accidentally materialize on the film set, and go about making fools fall in love, turning assholes into asses, and experiencing the finer points of Hollywood life.
I don't think I've ever heard an audience laugh so much or so often at a Blackfriars show. "Shakespeare" is a crowd-pleaser, and while the concept for the show is a smart one and the script includes some very funny lines, I give a lot of that credit to the cast and directors John Haldoupis and Linda Starkweather. Together they elevate material that could have been merely cute and turn it into something that produces real belly laughs.
Mark Scott Almekinder portrays veteran director Max Reinhardt, who fled to Hollywood from Austria to escape the encroaching Nazi movement. In real life Reinhardt couldn't speak a word of English during filming; in the play he speaks through a thick Eastern European accent, which Almekinder uses to great effect to underscore his fantastic sarcastic wit. Peter J. Doyle's Jack Warner is all blustering businessman until his girlfriend suddenly, inexplicably falls for another man, and then he turns into a big softie. Doyle nicely underplays several scenes that could have easily gone overboard.
The play really crackles the instant Cindy Hill sashays on stage as Lydia Lansing, Warner's chorus-girl girlfriend eager to shed her reputation as one of the Top 10 sluts of Hollywood (what an honor!) by appearing in a prestige picture like "Midsummer." Hill does go over the top in her gum-smacking, Jersey-accented, dim-bulb performance, but it's precisely what the role calls for, and she is outrageously funny in every scene she's in. The other female lead, Meghan Rose Tonery as Olivia Darnell, is lovely, restrained, and sweet, and believable each time she falls in love - at least three times, by my count - during the course of the play. One of those love interests is baseball-flick player Joe E. Brown, played sublimely by Doug Kester, who is funnier in drag than any of the queens of Rochester.
I was initially cool toward Marguerite Frarey's portrayal of the wood spirit Puck. Puck is the embodiment of mischief, but Frarey initially played him like a hyperactive preteen. As the show went along on opening night she tapped into Puck's naughtier instincts, and ended the show with a more rounded-out version of the character. Fred Neurnberg is an obvious choice to play Oberon, king of the fairies, and he does not disappoint. He is by turns fanciful, imperious, spiteful, smitten, giddy, and exasperated, but he never loses that quintessential regal air. Plus, listening to Neurnberg reciting even snippets of Shakespeare in that warm, weathered voice is a pleasure.
You'll get bits from many of Shakespeare's plays via Ludwig's script - in the introduction he calls himself a "Shakespeare addict to end all addicts." Unfortunately he doesn't trust his audience enough to catch them, and they're frequently blatantly ID'd by the characters. That level of obviousness can be found throughout the script, and it's disappointing, because Ludwig is capable of some sparkling dialogue. He just has a tendency to go for the easy wordplay whenever it presents itself.
That lack of restraint can also be found in Ludwig's frustrating decision to have characters directly address the audience, seemingly at random. I debated whether this was in deliberate homage to Shakespeare and his legendary soliloquies, but I don't think that's the case - some of them are used as an easy way to unload exposition (Reinhardt), some of them are used again to make sure the audience gets what's going on (Olivia's "letters" to her mother, informing her of her obvious feelings toward Oberon), and others are just bizarre. Why does the audience need to hear a brief recounting of the life of pioneering gossipmonger Louella Parsons, especially when she's so tangential to the proceedings?
"Shakespeare in Hollywood"
Through December 11
Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E Main St.
$15-$27 | 454-1260, blackfriars.org