Some years ago I produced a Lifetime cable TV movie called Invisible Child which starred Rita Wilson, still best known as Tom Hanks' wife. She is a very, very talented actress, a delightful woman, and deeply committed, with her husband, to many worthwhile causes. So last night I attended a benefit they co-hosted, a rather quirky but wildly fun-filled fundraiser for the Shakespeare Center called Simply Shakespeare, the 21st annual evening of doing this event. What a hoot! So many famous names, friends of theirs, reading the Bard's delightful comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor.
While they did not change a word of the text, they did elaborate, wildly, upon it in outrageous staging. Like giving it a Western setting, which explains why country-and-western singers Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and Reba McEntire were among the star-studded cast. I must admit, I never thought I would see that musical trio doing Shakespeare, but what the hell... they actually did fine reading their lines. And because music is an integral part of these delightfully irreverent evenings, some wonderful old Hank Williams songs were included. (Imagine Reba singing "Your Cheatin' Heart" to William Shatner playing Falstaff! No, you can't imagine it.) Rita's brother, Chris Wilson, was the musical director and they manage to fit in several songs amidst the madness of Shakespeare. (We celebrated his birthday on April 23rd, though the exact year of his birth -- probably 1564 -- is in doubt. No question, though, he is turning over in his grave after the hilarious reading last night).
Much more in the classic tradition was actor Kenneth Branagh, although I was flummoxed this weekend by how much I enjoyed the 3-D science fiction fantasy film he had directed, Thor. (Audiences everywhere are joining me in this exciting cinematic adventure; that picture was the best-grossing one for the weekend.) Told him the Academy audience responded well to it, which he appreciated. My biggest surprise at the Shakespeare event at UCLA's Royce Hall was Laugh In's Arte Johnson, who turned out to be a trained Shakespearean actor and a magnificent performer in the bitingly witty play. (Doing Shakespeare in a Western-Yiddish accent, certainly a first.) Ben Donenberg tried to direct this group, but I suspect he merely gave the cues and got out of the way of the raffish Hanks/Wilson repertory company; Christina Applegate played the flirtatious young ingénue, Eric Idle was a duplicitous Justice, Tracey Ullman was hilarious as Mistress Page, and Martin Short was... well, Martin Short, speaking in a dialect never before heard on this planet (or any other, for that matter.) And you've never lived until you have seen a bucktoothed Tom Hanks do a country two-step to Reba McEntyre singing "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It."
Money raised by the evening's event helps to make Shakespeare available and engaging to young audiences in L.A. I know that come next May, I will be here again... hoping that Old Will S. shows up. As he once wrote, "Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart." I beg to differ... words do matter, especially from the heart.
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