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Photograph by David Allen

Opening-Night Jabs: Reporter Louella Parsons (Suzanne Grodner) interviews director Max Reinhardt (Gerry Hiken) in 'Shakespeare in Hollywood.'

School Of Bard Knocks

TheatreWorks spins a '30s fantasy in 'Shakespeare in Hollywood'

By Marianne Messina

AS THEATREWORKS' production of Shakespeare in Hollywood opens, spotlights crisscross the audience, and suddenly everyone seems to be cheering (thanks to Cliff Caruthers' surround-sound design and Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting design). This illusion even stimulated some vocal audience participation at the beginning of the play. On a stage winged by Warner Bros. emblems (scenic design by Andrea Bechert), a Hollywood dish mistress named Louella Parsons (Suzanne Grodner) introduces the stars: Dick Powell (Craig W. Marker), Jimmy Cagney (Noel Wood) and director Max Reinhardt (Gerry Hiken), for the premiering film A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Dressed in dazzling silver sequins, Parsons manages to insult Reinhardt while interviewing him with Joan Rivers-style aplomb. Grodner's Louella is brassy and loving it. She cuts off Reinhardt's lines every chance she gets, implying that the Austrian-born director might dampen her dazzle like a dull college professor. With a film, stage and TV career dating back to the TV series Car 54, Where Are You?, Hiken eased into this wily Reinhardt like a second skin. When Max tells Louella he's from Austria, she condescends, "Isn't that adorable," and asks why he's come from Europe to make this film. "In my country there's a man named Hitler—he's killing people," Reinhardt replies in his crafty, low-key way.

Playwright Ken Ludwig uses this glitzy opening to set up the crosscurrent that drives the play's humor, the seriousness of a mature Euro culture, a cultural elite if you will (represented by Reinhardt and Shakespeare) vs. the playfulness and youthful pop culture represented by Hollywood. Ironically, both Reinhardt and Shakespeare are imported by Warner Bros. precisely to lend a serious air to the company's ailing image.

Loosely based on events around the 1930s film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in Hollywood has Jack Warner making the film to please his girlfriend, bimbo chorus-girl-turned-actress Lydia Lansing (Lucy Owen). In bright blonde curls, Owen's Lydia is part Bronx and part Valley girl. Parallels with Shakespeare continue in the lovers Dick Powell (Marker is charming) and Olivia Darnell (Lisa Anne Morrison), with the bad acting troupe consisting of Jimmy Cagney and Joe E. Brown (Robb Bauer). Bauer spends a good bit of the show in drag under the curly Goldilocks wig of Thisby.

Enter, the "real" Oberon (Don Carrier) and Puck (Rebecca Dines). Robed and trousered in faux leaves (Fumiko Bielefeldt, costume design), Carrier speaks in rich cultured tones both majestic and sympathetic compared to the wiry Dines' coarse Cockney accent, red pixie hair and extreme ears. The well-matched pair use wonderfully coordinated moves to create the sense that Oberon controls Puck by magic. Revisiting Shakespeare's popular play would not be complete, however, without the purple flower shot by Cupid's arrow, the one that's sprinkled in someone's eyes to make them fall in love with the first person they see. Once the flower arrives on the scene, unlikely love matches occur, comeuppance is doled out liberally and hijinks abound.

TheatreWorks' version of the Cupid flower is rather proactive in a horror-film kind of way: as people sniff it, it most fleetly gloms onto their eye with a great thwack of a sound effect that gets funnier each time it happens. Caruthers' audio wand also touches the voices in fairy land to give them an ethereal quality. The company's lively production values make it all the easier for the solid cast to bring laughter and a little wistfulness to Ludwig's Hollywood, an essence as magical and debauched as a fairy woods bewitched.

Shakespeare in Hollywood, a TheatreWorks production, plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (with added shows at 2pm Jan. 29 and Feb. 5) and Sunday at 2pm (with an added show 7pm on Jan. 30) through Feb. 13 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$44. (650.903.6000)

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From the January 26-February 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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