One of Hollywood’s storied chapters, Max Reinhardt’s 1935 filming of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is grist for Ken Ludwig’s latest farce, a defiantly corny yet amusing escapade that is given a classy sendoff by Arena Stage. Chaos erupts on the soundstage when the “real” Oberon and Puck appear by chance, eager to make mischief and spark a romance.
Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) loves a showbiz story, and he finds Austrian producer Reinhardt’s brief experience in Hollywood a worthy topic. Not only did the making of the film set up one of Hollywood’s celebrated art-vs.-commercialization clashes, but it gathered on one project some of the town’s more memorable characters — Jack Warner, Jimmy Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Mickey Rooney and Joe E. Brown. For Ludwig, this mix was just a few ingredients shy of another madcap comedy: one ditzy love interest, a cold-hearted villain (film censor Will Hays) and two of Shakespeare’s most enduring characters.
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The result is a distinctly low-brow farce filled with goofy puns, banal jokes and manufactured mayhem. Every supporting character is a one-note stereotype, from the cigar-chomping Warner to the sneering and belligerent Hays. (Perhaps that’s why the Royal Shakespeare Co., for which the play was originally written, lost interest after reviewing the script.) The play gets its spark chiefly by parodying the showbiz titans, toying with Shakespearean prose and adding a magician’s surprises.
Arena has assembled a terrific cast that, for the most part, delivers. Former company member Robert Prosky as Reinhardt is the voice of reason and the play’s frustrated narrator, while Broadway’s Alice Ripley is comfortably over-the-top as the bimbo starlet and peroxided playmate of studio boss Warner (Rick Foucheux). Casey Biggs is just right as the bewildered but charming Oberon.
Other bright perfs are turned in by Maggy Lacey as an adorable de Havilland (renamed Olivia Darnell because Ludwig didn’t want to offend the screen star), Emily Donahoe as the spirited Puck, Ellen Karas as irritating gossip columnist Louella Parsons and Everett Quinton as the detestable Hays. Hugh Ness is the spitting image of Joe E. Brown, the play’s chief foil, and Michael Skinner is the quintessentially blubbery yes man. The whole thing is packaged frenetically by director Kyle Donnelly, who keeps the action perpetually flowing.
For the record, Ludwig has taken some historical liberties with the play’s central theme. Ripley’s character browbeats Warner into producing the film as her star vehicle. In reality, Warner OK’d the project after seeing Reinhardt’s stage production at the Hollywood Bowl.
Ludwig playfully lampoons Hollywood’s famous phoniness by interpreting it through the eyes of Shakespeare’s characters. But in general, the play disappoints, especially when the second act disintegrates into an array of contrived couplings as Puck’s magic flower falls into the wrong hands. It’s essentially a one-joke act that cries out for more clever material.