Surrounded by skateboarders and surfers, UCLA's Royce Hall is about as far as you can get from the Bard of Avon's old stomping grounds. But some of entertainment's elite did their best to bring William Shakespeare to Southern California with an all-star reading of "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
"It's a cavalcade of celebrities in here, some of whom have done Shakespeare before, some of whom not," said Tom Hanks in an interview before the event. "And it's a one-time only. We sell it out. We rehearsed it today. We're performing it tonight. Hardly anyone knows what they're doing in there. So anything could happen. It could be 'Hellzapoppin'" in here, by way of 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.'"
Among the participants Monday night to benefit The Shakespeare Center in Los Angeles: Christina Applegate, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Eric Idle, Tracey Ullman and Kenneth Branagh, who has brought Shakespeare to the masses with such films as "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing."
"Shakespeare talks a lot about clowns," Branagh said. "He talks a lot about clowning. He's a popular entertainer. And I think one of the things that an evening like this does ... is this riotous kind of quality. So, it's really pretty anarchic and lunatic. Now, that's all through the plays, and you really get it on an evening like this. And you've got some amazing, amazing talents here. And they keep it very loose. And it's respectful but not reverential at all. So, it's more like kind of a party feel to it."
Los Angeles may not have a Broadway like New York City or West End like London, but it does have a vital theater scene, said actress and film producer Rita Wilson ("Mamma Mia!"), who is married to Hanks.
"Well, we're very blessed to have many stages in Los Angeles," she said. "We've been doing this for The Shakespeare Center for about 21 years. And it's evolved from a very, very small, upstairs theater at the Pasadena Playhouse to here at Royce Hall where we have 1800 seats.
"Over the years, we've had extraordinary people come and participate, from Anthony Hopkins to Will Smith to Mike Myers to Jack Lemmon ... and tonight we have ... Kenneth Branagh, who actually does real Shakespeare, and, you know, he's probably tweeting about it right now like (in an English accent), 'What the hell are these people doing?'
"I don't know — it might be scary."