Shakespeare And Love

Millennia Come And Go, But Fools In Love Last Forever.

QUINTESSENTIAL theatre's intimate, 60-seat playhouse in the Julian Drew warehouse has been coaxed into a simple garden setting for Love's Labour's Lost, one of the "earliest and happiest" of Shakespeare's plays, director Brian Kearney notes, believed to have been performed before the English court during the Christmas celebration of 1597.

The scene is a park outside the court of Navarre, where our 20-something King Ferdinand is locked in vociferous debate with his peer and advisor Berowne, on the subject of scholarship. It seems the idealistic young king seeks, by will or decree, that all men of the court should swear off earthly pleasures in favor of loftier pursuits. All save he are against the idea -- the sharp-tongued Berowne and the laughable Spanish courtesan Don Adriano de Armado the most vocal among them. The rest of the play, broken into five acts with quick-changing scenes of 10-minute intervals, is built around the intrigues and lamentations that ensue as these men of honor fall into duplicitous schemes to covertly woo the women they love.

Though the language remains true to the original, Kearney has inverted the date to the 1950s, outfitting his lords in prep-school plaids and argyles, and his ladies in floral print dresses and low heels, giving them a generically modern look.

Thirteen players round out this cast, but most of the time only two to four share the stage at once. You come to recognize them by the company they keep: King Ferdinand, with his gold watch chain, introduces the play with his lords Berowne and blond Longaville, followed by the mocking duo of Don Armado and his 15-year-old page, Moth. Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel alternately don the academic cap and holy cross to portray a pretentious academe. And the poised princess of France, joined by ladies Rosaline and Maria, are assisted in their subversive mocking of the kingly trio by their mustached steward Boyet. Gangly Costard, in his baggy clothes and bow tie, is the perfect hapless pawn in all their schemes, and his love Jaquenetta is unmistakable in her platinum wig and flowered hat.

The constable Dull stands in for the "dimwitted" voice of reason, policing the players' ridiculous speeches with down-to-earth admissions that he has no idea what they're talking about.

The casting here is a bit like the language: you don't have to catch every word (or name) to understand what's going on. These characters are in constant motion and conversation, but the plot is simple and the actors' actions and affectations are well placed to keep even the most Bard-resistant audience on the same page. For example, there's something of Kelsey Grammar's Frasier in Jon Campbell's Don Armando; and Sean Dupont's adept Berowne is so expressive and exuberant he's a pleasure to watch, even when he yields to the temptation to rush through those demanding lines.

For the Shakespeare aficionado, Love's Labour's Lost is more light-hearted footnote than challenging work of art. (Though one does see the conceptual gears of later works like Much Ado About Nothing beginning to grind.) A little bit coarse, a little contrived, it's nonetheless fun. And it's perhaps the only of Shakespeare's comedies that ends with a long-term commitment rather than a marriage. You can't get any more modern than that.

Love's Labour's Lost continues through December 26 on the Quintessential Stage, 118 S. Fifth Ave. Show time is 8 p.m. Friday through Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12, $10 for seniors, students and military with ID. For reservations, call 798-0708.
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