Farce finds laughs in the Bard, showbiz

Jokes about the Bard and the golden age of the movie industry abound in “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” which opens Friday at Trumbull New Theatre.

“There’s something there for everybody,” director Lisa Bennett said. “A lot of one liners, a lot of room for all of the characters to have their moment in the sun. There are no throwaway characters. Everyone plays an integral part to the comedic overtones. It’s very fast-paced.”

The script was written by Ken Ludwig, a Tony-nominated playwright whose comedies (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) have been successful on Broadway and have enjoyed even greater success with regional and community theaters.

“I read the script several years ago,” Bennett said. “I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t quite picture it. Then I saw it at Weathervane (Community Playhouse in Akron) two years ago and fell in love with it. I just never laughed so hard.”

The play is inspired by Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film version of the William Shakespeare comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” although Ludwig imagines that Puck and Oberon, the mischievous fairies from the play, have come to life on the set of the movie.

“And they do what fairies always do, which is cause havoc,” Bennett said. “They make people fall in love with the first person they see, which in Hollywood can be dangerous.”

There a few jokes that depend upon a good knowledge of Shakespeare’s work to appreciate, Bennett said, but most of the humor has broad appeal.

Several of the characters are based on Hollywood luminaries. In addition to Reinhardt, the characters include actors Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown and James Cagney; gossip columnist Louella Parsons and studio executive Jack Warner. And while her character’s name is changed to Olivia Darnell in the script, the character clearly is based on Olivia de Havilland, who played Hermia in the 1935 film.

Some of those real-life characters will be more familiar to audience members than others, but Bennett was more interested in capturing the comedic spirit of the work than having actors do impersonations.

“James Cagney is a bit part, but how are you going to capture James Cagney unless you have someone who is really good mimic,” she said. “We’re asking the audience to be a little forgiving on that one, but he has a couple of tough guy lines that are just wonderful … The actress playing Louella Parsons took it up on herself to watch some old tapes to see how she was.”

And in some cases, Bennett had to educate her younger cast members about the Hollywood legends. Groucho Marx makes a one-line cameo in the play, and the actor playing him never had heard of the comedian.

The cast features Margie Johnson, Curtiss Barron, Alex Jones, Tom DeNicholas, Will Anastasiadis, Patience Knowles, Casshan Wallace, Maria Wright-Ceraolo, Ali Limperos, Tom Gysegem, Jim Kilgore, Aaron Fall, Irene Altieri and Tori Meade.

Because of the farcical elements in the script and the importance of timing to get the laughs, Bennett said it was difficult to break up the rehearsal schedule to make it easier on the cast members, who have to juggle rehearsals around work and personal commitments. But the strength of the cast made the work easier.

“This has just been a fabulous cast,” she said. “They got on it right away with learning the lines and doing the research. It made my job so easy. I just had to keep it rolling.”