Donkey in the Dream Factory: Ludwig's Shakespeare in Hollywood Premieres at DC's Arena Stage

News   Donkey in the Dream Factory: Ludwig's Shakespeare in Hollywood Premieres at DC's Arena Stage Arena Stage enters two worlds — Shakespeare's arcadia and Hollywood's dream factory — for the premiere of Shakespeare in Hollywood, Ken Ludwig's fanciful new comedy about the creation of the Warner Bros. film, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Broadway's Alice Ripley (Side Show, The Rocky Horror Show) makes her Arena debut playing a character named Lydia Lansing — mistress to studio chief Jack Warner — in the Kyle Donnelly-directed production, launching the 2003-04 season at the DC not-for-profit, Sept. 5-Oct. 19. Opening night is Sept. 12.

Ludwig is known for Broadway's Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and the books to the musicals, Crazy for You and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Casey Biggs plays Oberon and Robert Prosky (a two-time Tony Award nominee) is famed Austrian stage director Max Reinhardt, who directed the 1935 film of the Shakespeare fantasia.

Shakespeare in Hollywood plays the Arena's Fichandler.

"Shakespeare in Hollywood is the entertaining fusion of Hollywood glitz, classic theatrical productions and Shakespeare's poetry around an event in cinema history – the making of Max Reinhardt's 1935 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,'" according to production notes. Reinhardt's film featured several legendary stars of American movies: Jimmy Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell and Joe E. Brown – all of whom feature prominently as characters in Shakespeare in Hollywood. Look for columnist and studio chief Jack Warner, too.

"This play is about the clash of high culture and popular comedy in America, especially in the world of the movies," Ludwig said in production notes. "It's also about how the imagination is such an important part of all our lives. These themes are set in the world of a 1930s screwball comedy. For me, this production is a dream come true; it's my first time working at Arena Stage, and for that I thank [Arena Stage artistic director] Molly Smith from the bottom of my heart."

In the new comedy, Puck and Oberon are returning to a wood near Athens, as directed at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Puck mistakenly follows a sign that says "A Wood Near Athens." That sign is on a 1934 Hollywood sound stage at Warner Bros.

"They become engulfed in this movie that's being made around them," Ludwig told Playbill On-Line. "Oberon falls in love with one of the actresses, and Puck falls in love with just being there and getting treated like a star."

People at the studio think the fantasy figures are studio actors. When Victor Jory and Mickey Rooney have to unexpectedly leave the project, Oberon and Puck get cast as Oberon and Puck. (Jory and Rooney both did the movie.)

Olivia de Havilland is in the story, but she has been renamed Olivia Darnell "because Ms. de Havilland is still alive and I didn't want to offend her in any way," Ludwig said.

The play began as a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company. After deciding Shakespeare and Hollywood might make a good match for a comedy, Ludwig did his Hollywood research and found that some classics were turned into movies because it was the wish of the studio mogul's wife or mistress — "because she wanted a prestige picture."

"A lot of these films were made as vanity productions," Ludwig said. "Studios were also in terrific competition with each other. As soon as one did one, the other one said, 'Hey, I can be as smart as that guy! I can do Shakespeare, too!'"

The mistress of Jack Warner in Shakespeare in Hollywood is played by Broadway's Alice Ripley, in a rare non-singing role.

The love-perfumed flower plays a major part in the new play, as it did in the Shakespeare comedy. Brush it on the eyes of a character and they will fall in love with the unlikeliest of partners. The notorious censor Will Hays (played by Everett Quinton) insults Oberon, and the fairy king gets revenge. "Oberon gets so mad at him, he sends Puck to get the magic flower," Ludwig explained. "The magic flower comes back and ends up on other people's eyes that it wasn't intended for."

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Director Kyle Donnelly served as associate artistic director at Arena Stage 1992-1998. She has directed at theatres across the country, including The Goodman Theatre, Alliance Theatre Company, Lincoln Center Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, and Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The company includes Quinton (The Mystery of Irma Vep) making his Arena Stage debut as Will Hays; Maggie Lacey (Broadway's Our Town) as Olivia Darnell; Emily Donahoe as Puck; Rick Foucheux as Jack Warner; Ellen Karas as Louella Parsons; Michael Skinner as Daryl; David Fendig as Dick Powell; Adam Richman as Jimmy Cagney; Hugh Nees as Joe E. Brown, with Bethany Caputo, Robert McClure, Eric Jorgensen and Scott Graham.

Designers are Thomas Lynch (set), Jess Goldstein (costume), Nancy Schertler (lighting), Susan R. White (sound). Choreographer is Karma Camp.

Tickets range $40-$53. For information, call (202) 488 3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.