'Keep your wits about you, everyone, and whatever you do, don't step on the red cups!"
With this bit of comically cryptic and mildly threatening advice, director Leslie McCauley, head of the smokin'-hot theater arts department at the Santa Rosa Junior College, energetically launches a Monday-night rehearsal. McCauley puts her actors through the paces of the smart and silly new comedy Shakespeare in Hollywood, written by Ken Ludwig, the screwy scribe behind such popular behind-the-scenes comedies as Lend Me a Tenor and Moon over Buffalo.
On this evening, less than two weeks before opening night, the large, multigenerational cast is attempting an uninterrupted run-through of the show's frenetic second act. In it, Hollywood luminaries Jack Warner, James Cagney, Max Reinhardt, Dick Powell, Louella Parsons and other real-life denizens of the 1930s mix it up with fictional Shakespearean characters as Reinhardt attempts to film the Bard's classic fantasy A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The script is a manic blend of high-brow and low-brow, tossing tights, iambic pentameter and Shakespearean sonnets together with Marx Brothers-style mayhem, really bad puns and roller skates. McCauley and cast work in a medium-sized classroom. The threatening red cups, arranged in rows here and there on the floor, delineate where various walls and set pieces will stand once the set is completed and the cast moves down the hall onto the stage of SRJC's massive Burbank Auditorium.
According to McCauley, the last several weeks have been a riotously good time, coupled with hours of hard work as the performers rid themselves of what McCauley calls "the 21st-century slouch" and master the graceful moves and fast-paced, rat-a-tat speaking style of 1930s movie actors.
"My goal from the beginning has been for us to have as much fun as possible," says McCauley. "I honestly have never laughed so much during any rehearsal of a play I was directing."
Working with the motto "No joke is too stupid," McCauley encourages her actors to contribute their own ideas, many of them borrowed (or outright shoplifted) from the classic pastry-chucking comedies of the Three Stooges, the Keystone Cops and Charlie Chaplin. The central premise of the play has Midsummer Night's Dream's "real" fairy king Oberon (played by Cameron Stuckey) and his conspicuously horny henchman Puck (Tifani Schwab) appear on set to replace actors Victor Jory and Mickey Rooney, who've just left the movie. As Oberon and Puck try to fit in with the foolish mortals, causing a number of improbable love connections courtesy of Midsummer's famous magic flower, the fairies are increasingly baffled--and strangely turned on--by the activities of the gowned and tuxedoed humans.
"The big joke," explains McCauley, "is that these are mystical creatures who live in a weird world of fantasy, but Hollywood turns out to be even weirder than they are."
On this night's rehearsal, actor David McCullough, playing the self-important government censor Will Hayes, cracks up the entire cast as he is being bitten on the face by one of Puck's rowdy love-blossoms. Aimee Ouellette, as Jack Warner's talent-challenged actress girlfriend Lydia, also gets big laughs with her recitation of the line, "I've always dreamt of sleeping with a yes man!"
After the rehearsal, the cast is still pumped-up from the exhilaration of the successful run-through. Asked to describe the biggest challenges of the play, they toss out answers.
"All of the verbal wordplay," suggests Darren Digges, who plays Warner's nerdy assistant. "Doing justice to the real-life people we're portraying," says Daniel Thompson, cast as James Cagney.
"Staying safe!" "Enunciating!" respectively shout the Puckish Schwab and Madeline Giuliet Harris, who plays fictional starstruck starlet Olivia. "Memorizing Shakespeare backwards," adds Ouellette, mysteriously. "Dancing in high heels!" contributes Kevin Kieta, who, as actor Joe E. Brown, plays much of the show dressed in drag (blame the flower!).
"Our hope for this show," explains Stuckey, almost becoming serious, "is that the audience leaves thinking that it was a fun couple of hours, but also that they would know how much fun all of us were having onstage. It's kind of inspiring, and sort of the point of the play, that all of these different people from different worlds can come together and, in spite of the challenges, create something wonderful."
'Shakespeare in Hollywood' runs Friday-Saturday and Wednesday-Sunday, March 2-3 and 7-11. Nightly at 8pm; also, 2pm matinees March 10-11. SRJC's Burbank Auditorium, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. For tickets, call 707.527.4343.
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