Lights, camera, action -- there's plenty of it in Ken Ludwig's fantastical farce ''Shakespeare in Hollywood," receiving its New England premiere at the Lyric Stage Company. The screwball comedy is set in 1934, during the shooting of ''A Midsummer Night's Dream," the only film directed by visionary European theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt.
Like most plays set in the world of show biz, ''Shakespeare" features backstage shenanigans that put the onscreen activities in the shade. Here, mayhem ensues when the mythological Oberon and Puck are accidentally transported to the back lot. There they go Hollywood with a vengeance and lark about with magic potions that produce unlikely (and extremely funny) romances involving various real-life characters. These include actors Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Joe E. Brown, as well as Reinhardt and exasperated producer Jack Warner. Reviled film censor Will Hays and gossip columnist Louella Parsons also figure into the mix.
Ludwig, a celebrated farceur (''Lend Me a Tenor," ''Moon Over Buffalo") has constructed an amazingly dense and layered romp, originally written for England's Royal Shakespeare Company (though never performed there). He clearly had a ball fusing Shakespearean diction with the wisecracking verbal jousting that characterized pre-World War II comedies. He even includes language found in the Hays Production Code.
The main theme here is ''fish out of water." Unaccustomed to modern technology, Oberon presumes a ringing phone is sending out a mating call (''Where's the other one?"). And every time the play veers toward a moment of seriousness, Ludwig throws a verbal banana peel -- a pun, spoonerism, or double entendre -- on the path. When Oberon realizes that movies differ from live theater because the audience sees only ''flickering shadows," he notes that this is profound because ''it implies that nothing lasts forever. That we are all just flickering shadows. Mere images on the spleen."
Director Spiro Veloudos has assembled an able cast that seems to effortlessly extract every laugh possible. Christopher Chew makes a dignified and occasionally befuddled Oberon, and an excitable Ilyse Robbins is a kinetic onstage presence as sidekick Puck.
The performers playing the real-life characters are absolutely in synch with the decade, a time when fast-talking comedy reigned supreme. Elizabeth Hayes's de Havilland is a plucky heroine who reveals an earnestly passionate side when she falls for Oberon. Caroline deLima is an effervescent Lydia, Warner's showgirl squeeze. Robert Saoud's Warner and Peter A. Carey's Hays are amusing as blustery bullies, and Ken Baltin elegantly portrays the dignified and obsessive Reinhardt. Margaret Ann Brady brings brass and sass to the role of Parsons, who functions as a celebrity-crazed Greek chorus. And David Krinitt delightfully captures Brown's famous deadpan -- while spending most of the evening in a dress.
The set pieces are simple and whisked on and off by company members. Somehow, none of the actors loses his place, despite an ever-increasing number of complex mismatches in act two. Preston Sturges would feel right at home.