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Theater review: 'Love's Labour's Lost' at the Broad Stage

November 22, 2009 |  2:43 pm
Love's labor

This scenically alluring touring production from England of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which opened Friday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, put me in mind of an Elizabethan greeting card — or at least one of those gift shop facsimiles that bring on a sudden overpowering urge for tea and scones with jam.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London, an outdoor venue on the south bank of the River Thames, strives to give its audience an imaginative approximation of the way Shakespeare’s plays were performed in their own time. The atmospheric productions at this popular tourist destination tend to be sparely appointed, the better to throw into relief the frolicsome period costumes. Music and dance lend a Renaissance conviviality. And the actors pull out all the stops to amuse the groundlings while endeavoring to impress the more poetic sensibilities of the grandees.

As a sprightly if somewhat superficial example of the house style, this “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” directed by Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, is broad, joshing and better at coloring in a picture than finely sketching its details. Yet the relentlessly lively, almost manic tempo is perhaps necessary when dealing with an antique theatrical work that’s really more of a verbal opera, composed in a lyrical dialect that isn’t always easy for contemporary theatergoers to decipher.

Lovelab3 A king and his lords, in pursuit of the immortality of art and scholarship and in defiance of their rowdier instincts, forswear women for three years only to have the Princess of France arrive with her tempting retinue. Naturally, human nature makes a shambles of the men’s high-minded vows. The comic premise is timeless, yet archaic language and outdated gags prevent “Love’s Labour’s Lost” from being frequently revived. I still have fond memories, however, of Simon Abkarian’s vibrant staging for the Actors’ Gang in 2006, in which he gorgeously refashioned the play into a living tapestry.

Dromgoole may be more drawn to the romantic high jinks and bawdy jokes than to the painterly possibilities, but his staging nonetheless displays a remarkably fluidity. (A circulating band and Claire van Kampen’s music add vintage buoyancy.) The production is also beautifully spoken, which is of the utmost importance when you have characters whose tongues are perpetually wagging, taking oaths and forsaking them, mocking and apologizing and, most important of all, wooing and wittily rebuffing the wooer.

The main source of disappointment is with some of the tepid characterizations. Particularly lacking is Thomasin Rand’s meek portrayal of Rosaline, whose humorous jabs and cynical retorts make her a precursor to Beatrice from “Much Ado About Nothing.” Unfortunately, she’s completely overshadowed here by Michelle Terry’s vinegary turn as the princess, who leads her ladies into the cloistered court of Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Philip Cumbus), to request the fortune owed to her father and to make sport of the men’s hypocrisy, especially after His Highness goes gaga for her.

Berowne (Trystan Gravelle), a party boy who boasts that he’ll be the last to renounce his pledge of scholarly celibacy, has difficulty playing Benedick to Rosaline’s Beatrice. Harold Bloom describes Berowne as “a highly conscious male narcissist who seeks his own reflection in the eyes of women,” but for this guy to distinguish himself from his “Entourage”-like pack, he’ll need a more formidable female foil than he finds in this production.
The play unfolds as a succession of games, whose primary objective, pursued with maximum sarcasm, is one-upmanship. It’s first and foremost an aristocratic battle of the sexes, though Shakespeare drafts a diverse community of contestants, including Costard (Fergal McElherron), the clownish rustic who has no interest in making chaste promises he knows he can’t keep; the school master Holofernes, who’s forever splitting linguistic hairs; and Don Adriano de Armado (Paul Ready), a braggart from Spain whose haughtiness is evident in every curlicue sentiment he utters.

These motley gentlemen perform a pageant called the “Nine Worthies,” which is the most formal if humorously feeble of the theatrical situations Shakespeare concocts for his crew. Masks have a way of unmaking true selves, and the flimsy disguises employed throughout the play (including some shaggy Muscovite headgear) force everyone to glimpse their own flaws and falsehoods.

Shakespeare’s comedies often conclude with a few scattered dark clouds hovering on the edge of sun-dappled festivities, but here, as the title has already prepared us, the genre’s usual happy ending is postponed. Dromgoole revs up the amorous antics into kind of frenzied food fight, only to have the interruption by a messenger, announcing that the princess’ father has died, seem that much more crushing.

Few moments in Shakespeare’s comedies are as touching as this reversal, which compels the princess to cease her shenanigans and confront the reality of grief. When the king pleads with her to grant her love to him before she leaves, she somberly replies, “A time methinks too short/To make a world-without-end bargain in,” and challenges him to pursue her in a year’s time if he can make good on his previous desire to live austerely.

Similarly, Rosaline enjoins Berowne to attend to the gravely ill in the 12 months that they’ll be separated. Her wish is that this glib, sardonic though far from shallow fellow will finally realize that “a jest’s prosperity lies in the ear/of him that hears it; never in the tongue/Of him that makes it.” The intrusion of mortality has made these women want to make smarter choices.

Dromgoole’s giddy players don’t quite have their footing to handle the sudden emotional shifts, yet there’s nonetheless a grave beauty in the movement from self-indulgent flirtation to mournful self-reckoning. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” doesn’t leave us laughing but instead gathers the characters together for a teasing song about the stark contrasts in seasons before the two camps’ eventual parting.

--Charles McNulty

“Love’s Labour’s Lost,” the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Schedule varies. Ends Nov. 29. $25-$85. (310) 434-3200 or Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Photos: Top and bottom: The Broad Stage in Santa Monica presents a two-week holiday run of
the Globe Theatre's "Love's Labour's Lost.". Credit: Amy Graves / Getty Images