Shakespeare overshoots Hollywood and lands at the Western Stage.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
The schtick is thick in Salinas this weekend, as the Western Stage Company continues its production of a rollicking Shakespeare in Hollywood in the Studio Theater at Hartnell College.
The company commits itself deeply to this farce, set in ’30s Hollywood and peopled with Hollywood stars, characters from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and situations from the early days of filmmaking. It’s a tall order for a small company: this script expects an audience to understand filmic and Shakespearian references…and any farce is really hard to do and still get some respect in the morning. Alas, morning has broken.
It’s an amusing premise when some mishandled magic transports the Bard’s favorite faeries—Oberon (the King) and Puck (his resourceful servant)—to the Hollywood backlot of Warner Brothers Pictures in 1935 instead of a forest in ancient Athens—an overshot of just a few centuries and a continent or two. The otherworldly duo pretty much fits right into the 20th Century version of magic on the backlot of a madcap major motion picture production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There is so much to be admired about this throw-off-the-safety-jackets production that it’s encouraging to think that the flaws may be resolved when the show moves in two weeks from the tiny Studio Theater, where the audience can see every tear in the fabric, to the vastly larger Sunset Center, where distance may enhance the illusion.
Throughout the evening, characters fling themselves on and off the stage with dangerous abandon. The pace is breathless: doors and windows are ripped open and slammed closed with exciting syncopation, speeches are rattled with auctioneer frenzy. The minimal set is made to work, the accents maintained with commitment; the funny bits milked for maximum zing and throughout, the staccato dialog flows inexhaustibly. It’s theater that would be perfect for kids raised on cartoons and fast-cut television—if they could understand the ’30s Hollywood references.
It helps, for instance, to know what power the gossip columnist Louella Parsons and the Lord of Censors, Will Hayes—recurring characters in the play—held over the freewheeling movie industry of that era. What studio of that era wouldn’t love to see Will Hayes bray uncontrollably wearing the head of a donkey with his fingers up his behind? Why would a Hollywood mogul duck out of sight at the approach of Louella Parsons, reporter’s notebook in her hand? For viewers who don’t already know this stuff, the gags are less funny.
Again: Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s was a haven for European directors and writers who were welcomed by the film industry with the idea that they would add class and sophistication to an art form that was still only a few decades beyond a peepshow. Shakespeare in Hollywood’s pivotal character, the German director Max Reinhardt (Marcus Edwards) doesn’t have a chance to establish the absurdity of his situation in the half-minutes he is allowed for exposition. That would have helped make some crazy sense of his character.
But does farce have to make sense? The key to the success of even the wildest farce is that it is based in its own truth. Here the production falls short of its mark.
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The set is minimal and works fine in the intimate environs of the Studio Theater. The costumes, however, are a curious assortment: some lush period gowns wrap the leading ladies—an over-the-top Bronx-accented golddigger, Lydia (played by Deborah Curtis) and an allegedly fair-maidenish Olivia (played by Sarah Eismann)—but the rest of the cast has to make do with much, much less. Justin Azevedo as an eye-rolling baseball hero, Joe E. Brown, appearing in drag as Thisbe in the movie, would be so much funnier if his eternally slipping-from-the-shoulder gown was as gorgeous as he is not. Christine Lida Sliva, as Puck, wears forested fairy regalia with a gymnastic glee that makes it perfectly convincing, but Jonathan W. Ingbretson’s King of the Fairies is worth outfitting more richly.
In fact, the production pays too little attention to detail: movie moguls looking good in tuxedos have tatty, unpolished shoes; the glittering assembly at a high-tone party dance with the clumsiness of a sixth-grade cotillion in a scene where choosing one agile couple to dip and sway for a few minutes would have made a big difference. Meanwhile, important passages are swallowed by actors in their mission to speak at machine gun pace. The action never slows; the dialog rarely provides enough information to make sense of the characters. That’s why the loss of such visual clues is important.
Perhaps you can enjoy the evening as a thrill ride, bellow at the sight gags and give yourself up to the pace and the silliness. But hey, if the schtick sticks…
SHAKESPEARE IN HOLLYWOOD plays Western Stage, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas Aug. 25-27 and Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel Sept. 8-10. For prices and times call Western Stage at 375-2116 or visit westernstage.com.