As Madonna claims in her recent hit, everybody comes to Hollywood. Even, on occasion, Shakespearean characters. Complete with the Bard’s staple plot element – confused cross-dressing – “Shakespeare in Hollywood” is a wonderfully clever new play.
Ken Ludwig’s (“Crazy for You”) tale about the making of the Warner Brothers’ 1935 movie version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is served with a twist – some of the stars actually are their respective characters. In broad comedy, overacting can be bawdy and obnoxious, but the over-the-top characterizations in “Shakespeare in Hollywood” only add to the hilarity of the events taking place.
No farcical well is left untapped in this comedy of errors, making its world premiere at the Arena Stage. Laughs range from Nazi jokes to playful puns – the word “fairy” does not bridge the gap between the Elizabethan era and 20th-century filmmaking without evoking delighted laughter.
The set is alternately simple and glitzy, with authentic Hollywood lighting apparatuses and dramatic entrances. The Arena is theater in the round, which complements the whirlwind nature of the show. The actors compensate well for the venue – backs are inevitably turned to the audience, but never the same back for very long, as the performers are constantly but subtly rotating their positions on the stage. Glittery costumes round out the aesthetics that help make “Shakespeare in Hollywood” so enjoyable.
But the razzle-dazzle has nothing on the plot. Although it helps to be familiar with the Bard’s original “Dream,” any audience will appreciate Ludwig’s boundless creativity. Oberon, King of the Fairies, and his faithful friend Puck suddenly find themselves lost on the set of Max Reinhardt’s film project, a risky undertaking for the Warner brothers about Oberon’s and Puck’s “real” lives. Conveniently, the two actors playing the Bard’s characters have vacated their roles, and it isn’t long before the actual confused pair is cast – after all, they’re naturals in the parts.
What’s so brilliant about this play is how seamlessly Ludwig weaves Shakespeare’s original text into the more current context. Dialogue and plot alike are ingeniously interwoven – Oberon speaks poetry and his love interest, Olivia, recognizes his speech, shouting, “Anthony and Cleopatra!” Oberon spins around and says, “Where?”
In addition to the obvious hijinks that ensue when Oberon and Puck encounter modern inventions such as a ringing telephone (“If that’s its mating call, where’s the other one?”), they complicate matters further by locating in Hollywood the very flower that causes so much trouble back in the wood near Athens. Problem is, Puck goofs up (of course) and what results is a twisted and ridiculous web of spell-induced lust that eventually ensnares everyone working on Reinhardt’s film – one character even falls in love with himself. After all, as one 1935-er claims, borrowing a line from the original “Dream,” love and reason keep little company nowadays.
Just as Madonna’s “Hollywood” is a commentary on the industry, “Shakespeare in Hollywood” offers several thoughtful messages. The first is also about the industry. Reinhardt addresses the audience throughout the play and muses on the rapidity of personal progress in Hollywood. One minute you’re nothing, the next you’re a star (or a moon, as Oberon keeps saying). In keeping with the theme of the play, Max notes, “Love affairs appear like lightning and fade as quickly.” Puck puts it another way: “It’s hard to find a virgin. We’re in Hollywood!”
“Shakespeare in Hollywood” is also about censorship. Reinhardt left Austria to escape the Nazis, only to encounter harsh limits on his movie set. When the studio censor threatens to shut down production, Max does not yield – he won’t make this movie without absolute artistic freedom.
In the end, this play turns out to be about – what else? – love. But the moral doesn’t feel trite, and Ludwig should be commended for his originality. After laughing and cringing at the actors for an enjoyable two hours, the audience learns that loving someone simply means making that someone happy, even if it’s at your own expense. On that note, to see this play is to love it, and to love it is to see it again – I know I’ll be back on college night, when tickets are only $10 – “to seek new friends and stranger companies.”
“Shakespeare in Hollywood” is playing at Arena Stage through October 19; Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40 – $53 or $10 on College Nights (Thursday, Sept. 18, and Thursday, October 16, at 8 p.m.). A limited number of $10 tickets are also available until 5:25 p.m. on performance days. Go to www.arenastage.org for more details.