Love’s Labor’s Lost is so rarely produced nowadays because it explores one of the most compelling moral issues of 1425. (The play stems from what’s probably a French, possibly an Italian, novel based on a historical event of that year.) And though some aspects of our culture are drawing creepily close to those of the Middle Ages, and much of our entertainment, from Snakes and Ladders to video games, has medieval origins, it’s been a while since pre-Renaissance theological concerns have played big on modern stages and screens. To their credit, director Simon Abkarian and the Actors’ Gang toss these concerns into the air at their Culver City theater, if only to see how they land.
The comedy is anchored to an oath of abstinence by King Ferdinand of Navarre (Matt Huffman) and three of his noblemen (Brian Kimmet, Ethan Kogan and Daisuke Tsuji) — no women are to be allowed in the king’s court for three years, period. But where contemporary calls for such abstinence are related to a trilogy of social issues — sexual morals, teen pregnancy and STDs — the reasoning here calls for men to devote their full attention to a life of the mind and the spirit. Sexual attractions just distract from that, like petty inconveniences to be stifled. King Ferdinand’s reasoning is still today employed in the gender-segregation policies of a few parochial schools, Orthodox synagogues and conservative mosques — a reasoning that places men closer to God than women to God. Shakespeare’s point is that this reasoning also tries to place men closer to God than to women. His comedy lampoons such piety — especially when a four-person female delegation (lovely performances by Nancy Stone, Lolly Ward, Sabra Williams and Shana Sosin) arrives in Navarre from the French court.
Even from the start, one of the livelier noblemen, Berowne (the buoyant Kimmet), expresses his dismay with the oath’s folly — “So, ere you find where light in darkness lies, Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.”
It’s a very good point, and if this play has a central theme, that would be it. Being so, few would call this a matter of stirring controversy.
There’s an indirect link between the oath of Navarre and the recent molestation scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church, as the play grapples with a cadre of men trying to contain testosterone that’s boiling in their loins, largely thanks to their pledge of abstinence. Unlike altar boys and teenage parishioners, however, the French women are not guileless children. They have their own wit, sarcastic authority and wry power, which costumer Sarah Le Feber accentuates by dressing them in translucent, flowing robes that reveal lacy, white bras and panties, as though ordered from Victoria’s Secret.
Such touches help to underscore the play’s exigencies of love and lust that still hold up a mirror to our modern romantic longings, and to the masks we adopt to get what we think we want.
Eventually, inevitably, the women and the men go in disguise to sort out the matter of their foolishly forbidden liaisons. Among the delights of watching this production is to see the play as a warm-up for Shakespeare’s more developed works. And though the schematics of the Bard’s other comedies of mistaken identity spring to mind —A Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well — King Ferdinand’s self-righteousness most directly anticipates the stern moral posturing of Duke Angelo in Measure for Measure. Ferdinand may not be a hypocrite like Angelo, but he’s on that road.
American theatergoers and critics tend to have limited patience for European-type “concept” directors, whose blazing visual tableaux and archly presentational style steal playwrights’ thunder. Some good news here: Love’s Labor’s Lost doesn’t contain that much thunder to steal. More of a sonnet than a drama, the play and its characters are mere excuses for Shakespeare to cut loose with poetry, wordplay and mountains of carefully chiseled repartee. Unlike Shakespeare’s fuller plays, whose tragic characters are distinguished from the commentator-clowns, each character here is a puppet of sorts, so director Abkarian’s choice to treat them as such makes perfect sense. Employing the Actors’ Gang’s commedia approach, largely borrowed from French director Ariane Mnouchkine, Abkarian’s very elegant, stylish staging has characters facing front when speaking even to each other. This is a choreographed recitation that’s as visually beautiful as it is well spoken. One encapsulating moment comes from the Spaniard, Armado (Robert Shampain), who, with his wiry mustache, vaguely resembles Salvador Dalí. In a moment of urgency, whiteface powder sprays from his face to the stage floor. Talk about dropping one’s mask.
Francois-Pierre Couture’s set drapes two sets of linen curtains — one pair literally provides a cover for the ensemble; the other, a backdrop for shadow plays. One side of the set contains an earth-toned stone wall cloaked in blood-red bougainvillea, which prevents the already whimsical production — moodily accompanied by Ara Dabandjian playing his original compositions on guitar — from floating away entirely. A Russian masked ball provides a colorful spectacle, but then a mock-historical play-within-the-play (anticipating A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet) strains the play’s ligaments. That strain is almost but not quite forgotten in the artfully ambiguous resolution, in which the women set new terms of engagement. Their terms are designed to test the men’s commitment in the wake of capricious romancing, but we never know how serious these fellows are about anything.
There are also charismatic performances by Andrew E. Wheeler, as the ladies’ attendant; Mary Eileen O’Donnell, in a gleeful turn in drag as the manic schoolmaster, Holofernes; and Toni Torres, who fills her country maid with a pleasing blend of sultriness and sass.
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On the open-air, bare stage of Barnsdall Park, Cassandra Johnson’s modern-dress staging of Hamlet returns from last season a bit frayed around the edges but nonetheless assertive and bold, by necessity. As Melissa Chalsma, who plays a gut-wrenched Ophelia, points out in a preshow address, with all the noise from helicopters and sirens that accompanies the show, it doesn’t really matter whether or not patrons silence their cell phones. In a staging lit by instruments hanging from four poles, nuance is not the point. Here the aim is to spit out the words clearly, with conviction and with some good cheer — all of which are largely accomplished. David Melville plays Hamlet as a bleached-blond, south-of-England standup, bemused by his relatives’ betrayals of his dad. He just can’t believe that so shortly after his father’s funeral, his mother, Gertrude (director Johnson stepping in for Bernadette Sullivan), would wed Uncle Claudius (Michael Keith Morgan). No brooding here. More like stunned amazement, from which a cynical jocularity melds into a jocular cynicism. After having stabbed Polonius (David Nathan Schwartz) by accident while the old windbag (“To thine own self be true,” “For the apparel oft proclaims the man,” etc.) was hiding in Gertrude’s bedchamber (with no set, the poor victim has to hold a blanket in front of himself), Hamlet drags away the corpse by its feet, chirping cheerily to his mum, “Goodnight, mother!”
The production falls somewhere between the play and a parody of it, which is just fine. Claudius is a bit stiff — even before he’s offed — and Schwartz’s Polonius appears to have grown slightly more sedate since last year (maybe it’s from having been stabbed so often, and for so little purpose), but the ensemble delivers. The production still gets to the Big Question: What’s it all for? Love’s Labor’s Lost asks whether it’s possible to love, or not to love. You know what Hamlet asks. And Shakespeare’s not answering either question.?
LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by the Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Through September 16 | (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com
HAMLET | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by Independent Shakespeare Company at the Great Lawn of Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles | Through August 12 | (818) 710-6306 or ?www.independentshakespeare.com