By William Shakespeare
Directed by Aaron Levin
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Carleton Theatre, Seattle Center House/206-733-8222

Reviewed by Christopher Comte

"Love's Labours Lost" is, by all accounts, one of the Bard's minor works exhibiting all the glaring deficiencies of an early effort by an inexperienced, but clearly talented newcomer.  It lacks anything akin to dramatic action, or much of a plot at all for that matter, and is burdened with perhaps one of the most unromantic endings of any comedy in English literature. Certainly, there are moments of authentic comedic insight, but for the most part the play is simply a pastiche of clever ideas and self-conscious exercises in grandiloquent language, all of which clearly shows an author only beginning to focus his artistic powers. As such, it has the feel of a recipe in which all the ingredients have been assembled, but either mixed in improper proportions or in the wrong sequence, resulting in a gloppy mess of something that only barely resembles the intended finished product. Former Bridges Theatre Artistic Director, Aaron Levin's Edwardian-era version of the play, now running at Seattle Shakespeare Company may be at best a reasonable effort, but what truly distinguishes the production is a solid cast of mostly new talent, interspersed with a sprinkling of SSC veterans, who collectively engage the audience's interest more than the play in which they appear.

Levin exhibits a reasonably clear hand in his direction, using John Kirschenbaum's spare, Romanesque setting to give his actors maximum range of movement and composition, but unlike the Bard's latter, more assured comedies, there's rather a dearth of activity inherent in the text to begin with; it's all talk -- about philosophy and learning, about romantic love, about -- well, as Hamlet put it, "words, words, words". "Love's Labours" is in effect, a send up of language by someone who evinces a great affinity for the sound of his native tongue. And while Levin goes to great pains in his directors' notes to tell the audience about all the wonderous advances happening circa 1905, when he has set the piece, he seems to have little compelling reason for choosing the period in the first place, other than positing the rather vague notion that it was a time when, "everything seems possible". How this informs the play itself is questionable, and frankly, aside from Doris L. Black's spot-on ice cream suit costume design, there's little else in the concept that is concretely realized on the stage.

The production's greatest strength, and one for which almost all other deficiencies may be forgiven is Levin's decision to populate this world with a passel of talented young actors, many of whom are almost completely unknown to local audiences. Anchored by a handful of Seattle Shakes alumni, including Alban Dennis as Ferdinand, Company Artistic Director Stephanie Shine in the role of The Princess of France, Ray Gonzalez (Boyet), Beethovan Oden (Longaville), and the ever enchanting Hana Lass as Rosaline, Levin has the luxury of seeding several of the crucial roles in the play with newcomers who exhibit an assured facility with the language and style, and several of whom, if their efforts here are any indication, will be welcome additions to the ranks of Seattle-based performers.

Chief among these is Portland transplant Scott Coopwood, in the role of the love-smitten Spanish nobleman, Don Armado. As drawn by Shakespeare, the character is a buffoon, intended as an object of scorn and derision (England had just recently defeated the Spanish: Armada -- Armado, get it?) who exceeds the obvious stereotypes of the character, striking just the right balance between swaggering affectation and genuine romantic desire. He may be a buffoon, but he's a sincere one. Likewise, his erstwhile page, Moth (12 year-old Max Piscioneri in a remarkably polished performance), provides the perfect counterbalance to his master's pomposity, and his curt jabs at his Don Armado's emotive overindulgence are little gems of comic timing. Plus, he plays a mean lute to boot.

Another new face, Michael Black, as the cynical, yet no less foolish Berowne, proves to be another standout amongst the relative unknowns, easily articulating the character's at times convoluted language, while making a game attempt to breath life into what is otherwise a rather bland personage. Our interest in Berowne's journey is always dilluted by the fact that we know from the beginning that he assumes his vow of celibacy will be broken, and the only dramatic tension left is finding out whether he will be, as he claims, the last of his fellows to break it. Still, Black proves an adept foil for the romantic badinage between him and Lass, and manages to wrest some comic mileage out of his rather hypocritical berating of Ferdinand, Longaville and Dumain (Todd Bjurstrom) for their own poetic excess, in defiance of their oaths.

Dennis, always an eminently watchable performer, lends Ferdinand an ingratiating, but somewhat obtuse persona, so intensely focused is he on his philosophical pursuits that his subsequent wooing of the Princess takes on the air of a somewhat nerdy intellectual seeking a date with the Homecoming Queen.

Among the ladies, Shine holds court with aplomb, even managing to give her problematic change of tone in the final scene the proper gravitas, coming as it does at such a time in the play. Lass, who has already proven herself the best thing in several otherwise forgettable productions adds Rosaline to her growing string of strong, witty engenues. Rookies Rachael Ferguson and Kelly Mak effectively handle the supporting duties for the ladies, paired against Todd Bjurstrom and Oden respectively. Collectively, they have rather little to do in the slight proceedings, but they make the most of their relatively brief time onstage.

Somewhat more problematic are the minor comic roles, none of which have anything really substantial to do in the play. Garth Ink as Costard, the clownish rival to Don Armado for the affections of the wench, Jaquenetta, (Venessa Lynn Ortega), really only serves to give the vainglorious Spaniard an object of competition, or perhaps to give the aptly named Constable Dull (David Rollison) some reason for being in the play at all. The same holds for the two pontificating pedants, Sir Nathaniel (Dale Bowers), and Holofernes (Allan Armstrong), whose only reason for existence is to allow their creator to engage in even more supercilious verbiage. While they all prove apt at their thankless tasks, neither they nor Levin find any new spark to drive their characters in a direction that makes them seem more than superfluous. Even their supposed climactic "play with a play" feels tacked on; just one more of the many clever devices tossed into "Love's Labours Lost" that a more mature, more experienced Shakespeare will eventually use elsewhere to better effect.

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