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Shakespeare in Hollywood: A Lark of a Comedy at Theatre Southwest

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The setup:

Having to say Ken Ludwig and William Shakespeare in the same sentence initiates my gag reflex, but it's unavoidable for Shakespeare in Hollywood, now rampaging through Theatre Southwest. The execution: Mr. Ludwig's knockabout farce is set at Warner Bros. Studios in 1935, where legendary theater director Max Reinhardt is making a film adaptation of his international hit production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged the year before at the Hollywood Bowl. This actually happened, and the film, while no money maker, set a visual standard for filming the Bard which is hard to beat. The luminous black and white cinematography by Hal Mohr won a deserved Oscar, as did Ralph Dawson's editing; while the performances, aided in large part by co-director William Dieterle, are classic: James Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney as Puck, Olivia de Havilland in her screen debut as Hermia, Joe E. Brown as Flute, and Victor Jory as Oberon. The forest scenes are filled with cinema magic, spangled in cobwebs and shimmering highlights (the trees were sprayed with aluminum paint to reflect the light). Everything's made more glittering by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's arrangements of Mendelssohn's ethereal, fairytale music and some rather bizarre neo-modern choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, the former dance maker for Diaghilev's Ballets Russe.

The making of the movie would make a nifty comedy, a tale about the collision of highbrow and low. Under Ludwig's ham-fisted tutelage, it's nothing but low. The participants at Theatre Southwest, always game and refreshingly frolicsome, have a difficult time rising above the questionable material. The audience enjoyed the shenanigans, though, leaving me the lone holdout. I admit it, I don't get his appeal.

I did laugh out loud at the truly inspired scene where ditzy Lydia (Shandi Gomez, bursting appropriately out of her Elizabethan bustier and playing dumb blond with real gusto) can't understand her lines. The dialogue makes as much sense forward as backward, she whines. And she proceeds to show us, reading Shakespeare's rich poetry back to front. And she's right. The way she emphasizes the words, the backward version rings just as true. It's sublimely silly, with the right tone that Ludwig, unfortunately, never catches again.

I'm no fan of Ludwig. He's had tremendous success with his showbiz-tinged comedies - somewhere, on any day, Lend Me a Tenor, his first major success, is playing at a theater near you - but I find his shtick obvious, the lowest of common denominators. He takes the easy way out in all situations, employing a flat sex joke, a kick in the groin, or a pratfall in place of wit and charm. He writes farces - nothing wrong with that - but even over-the-top sitcoms have logic to them with believable situations and characters. If that's too much to ask, then at least set up the goofy situations with a semblance of plausibility. Some truth has got to be there for the joke to land. Ludwig just revs up his engines and dive bombs the audience. There's no time to get out of the way. He flattens us. Shakespeare in Hollywood is his B-52.

King of the fairies Oberon (Aaron Echegaray, with rich plangent baritone) and henchman Puck (Helen Rios, devilishly channeling Rooney's interpretation) find themselves in Hollywood -- the other land of make believe - on the set of Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt (Manny Longoria). Needing a replacement for Rooney who has broken his leg skiing - which did happen by the way - these immortals are quickly hired. Oberon can speak Oberon so trippingly, he's a natural. Havoc and "comedy" ensue as they gerrymander romance with their magic herbs.

As in the original, Puck makes a mess out of whose eyes gets flower juice, so the stage is soon awash in every sort of mismatched pair. Oberon falls for Olivia (Tyrrell Woolbert, a worthy mirror for de Havilland) without any potion at all. (As these two actors are the most adult in the play, the match is heaven-sent, and we are grateful.) In a comic flourish, the obnoxious censor Will Hays (Robert Faber), who's been pestering Warner about shutting down production, falls in love with himself, but is soon chased by Max. Dick Powell (Aaron Cook, delightfully innocent) runs after Joe E. Brown dressed in drag (burly David Bradley, who plays big and dumb, smartly). Mistakenly smitten, Olivia falls for Joe E. Brown, too. Lydia, mistress of studio boss Jack Warner, pursues yes-man assistant Daryl (Taylor Wildman), as does Louella Parsons (Jane Sledge Stoub) with predictable cat fight. Overly broad and none-too-subtle, the play trips over itself: farce run amok. You get the idea.

Look, I know it's nearly impossible to cast contemporary actors as golden age Hollywood icons, since the stars are so familiar - well, to some people over a certain age, perhaps, and for those of us who have their Tivo permanently set to Turner Classic Movies. So it's OK that Scott McWhirter doesn't resemble Cagney in the least, nor have his mannerisms or voice; Ludwig doesn't give him much to do anyway except take a couple of good falls. McWhirter's physicality is impressive.

But there are some details that are so wrong! (1) Sam Warner, who pops his head through the set's Deco openings whenever brother Jack in on the phone, had been dead since 1927. (2) In 1935 the Marx Brothers were ensconced at MGM, never at Warner's. (3) Not in a thousand years would Lydia with her Bronx twang be allowed anywhere near a microphone. Even Singin' in the Rain got this right. (4) A powerhouse publicity agent for W.R. Hearst's newspaper syndicate, Louella Parsons was no dummy when it came to writing about movies. She knew where the bodies were buried. (5) Where's William Dieterle, who shared the soundstage with Reinhardt? (6) Where are Hal Wallis and Henry Blanke, the line producers of Dream? Jack Warner might have OK'd the project but hardly ever interfered on the set. The devil's in the details. I don't think it's because I'm too literal, it's because Ludwig's not literal enough. He doesn't care.

The verdict: Kathy Drum's black and white Deco set with its lovely Grauman's Chinese forecourt of cement footprints is lovely and leaves plenty of room for the frantic antics played in front; and the costumes, uncredited in the program, give us a taste of '30s screen glamor. Meanwhile we have Echegaray, Woolbert, Gomez, and Rios who nimbly maneuver through the artificial melee. They've got enough stage magic to nearly convince me that Ludwig is a decent playwright. I'm the one who must be dreaming.

Shakespeare in Hollywood continues through June 21 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For information call 713-661-9505 or visit theatresouthwest.org. $15-$17

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