THE one thing people always say about Simon Abkarian is that there's something in the way he moves. When the noted French Armenian actor starred in Sally Potter's 2005 film in verse, "Yes," movie critic Karen Durbin exulted in his physical presence, calling it "a visual feast."
Now Abkarian is bringing some of his loose-limbed elegance to the Actors' Gang new home in Culver City, where he's directing a production of "Love's Labor's Lost," which opens Saturday. Physical grace may not be the first thing people think of when they think of Shakespeare -- and that's precisely the reason why Actors' Gang co-founder and artistic director Tim Robbins thought Abkarian could helm a stand-out production of the rarely performed comedy.
"One of the things that's always frustrating for me in watching Shakespeare is the actors not understanding what they're saying, and he's taking the actors through this in a very specific way," Robbins says of Abkarian. "Part of the reason they don't understand is they're not being asked to make large choices emotionally, so sometimes Shakespeare becomes like a reading. He understands it must have fire and blood flowing and extreme passion and people in extreme circumstances doing extraordinary things. Great playwrights don't make plays about people who are kind of depressed and kind of happy. The trap with Shakespeare is the language is so beautiful that you forget that these are people who are capable of great extremes of emotion."
Abkarian's rehearsals are tantamount to tutorials on the poetry of the body, only his disciples are actors, not dancers. It may be a counterintuitive approach to the Bard, who crafted such a dazzling interplay of words that actors often get lost in them. Abkarian recalibrates their focus from their brain to their entire body, providing a counterbalance that teases out the meaning of the words.
In "Love's Labor's Lost," Ferdinand, the king of Navarre, decides that he and three of his lords must give up women so that they can devote themselves to the life of the mind. His plan comes undone when the princess of France and her three ladies come to town and show the men another key to the meaning of life.
During a recent rehearsal, Abkarian, 44, shepherds the cast through a scene in which the royals, along with their respective entourages, make their first tentative contacts with each other. He doesn't ask the actors to analyze their characters' motives or exhume emotions from personal experiences. Instead, he prods them to become almost like puppeteers, using their own bodies as the puppets, working from the outside in rather than the inside out.
"When you're doing a film, actors' movement becomes problematic, so we have 35 shots," he says. "It's demanding to walk and talk while putting the glass on the table. Our art is not only about emotion and looking the way you look. It's also about measuring what you do."
During the rehearsal, he reminds the cast that the male and female characters are supposed to keep their distance from each other, "so you have to invent a way to communicate. People communicated with bread puppets in concentration camps. They didn't eat it. They used it to communicate. Communication is forbidden. You have to believe it's forbidden."
The men and women stand at either side of the stage poised to approach and circle each other in a kind of minuet before returning to their places. But getting the four couples to move in unison while looking ahead, not off to the side, is turning out to be tricky. "Try to be one body, all of you," Abkarian tells them.
Unlike French theater companies that flourish with the help of government subsidies, the Actor's Gang can't give him six months to fine-tune the performances, only six weeks before opening night. Fortunately for all concerned, the timetable shouldn't be an issue, given his philosophical approach to the work.
"I'm not seeking perfection," he tells the group. "Perfection is boring."
FOR those who find perfectly conventional looks boring, Abkarian's are anything but. The rangy actor has the graceful bearing of a leading man, but his strong nose and heavy brow are hardly the chiseled features that typically persuade Hollywood casting directors to fill a romantic part. It may be unsurprising that Abkarian's swarthy, ethnic looks have helped him win such roles as the terrorist Dimitrios in the upcoming James Bond remake, "Casino Royale," as well as the part of an Armenian fleeing the Turkish genocide in 1915 in the Paris production of the play "Beast on the Moon," which earned him the 2001 Moliere Award for best actor.
But imaginative directors have also seen in him the lover capable of entrancing film critics. In Potter's "Yes," set in London, he played a Lebanese doctor turned cook and political immigrant who becomes romantically involved with the unhappily married Irish American scientist played by Joan Allen. And after meeting Abkarian through Robbins, director Jonathan Demme created a role for him as the silent lover and fellow officer of the female detective in 2003's "The Truth About Charlie," which costarred Robbins.
"I believe an actor should be able to play any kind of part if it's well written, well directed and well watched," Abkarian says.
He cast two women -- Angela Berliner and Mary Eileen O'Donnell -- in the male roles of Moth and Holofernes, respectively, in his "Love's Labor's Lost" because, he says, they were the best "men" for the job, not as any sort of comment on gender roles. Asked why, he simply smiles. "It's a mystery," he says. "I cannot say. In theater, the imagination's space is wider."
In a way, this production brings Abkarian full circle from his birth as a theater professional at an acting workshop in Los Angeles where he met Robbins 22 years ago. The workshop was conducted by Georges Bigot of Paris' avant-garde Le Theatre du Soleil as part of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.
An actor in training
ABKARIAN hadn't entertained the idea of becoming an actor until Bigot and Arianne Mnouchkine, Le Theatre du Soleil's legendary director whom he knew in Paris, suggested he take the month of classes that challenged actors to work within the limitations of commedia dell' arte masks. When Robbins saw him take the stage in those early days, he was impressed. "How he expressed emotions through movement was really extraordinary," Robbins says.
After Abkarian returned to Paris, he spent eight years acting with Le Theatre du Soleil. He performed multiple roles in epic productions, among them "Les Atrides," a 10-hour compendium of four tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides, which made up the company's acclaimed New York debut in 1992.
In 1993, the Paris-born Abkarian and his actress-director wife Catherine Schaub Abkarian left the company to start their own, T.E.R.A. (Theatre Espace Recherche Acteur). Their first production? A French translation of "Love's Labor's Lost."
"It has a special place in my heart because it talks about us in such a witty way, such a light and deep way," says Abkarian. "It's accessible. And the first time I worked with the Gang, I wanted to work on something they hadn't done. This is not often shown. It's considered a minor work, but I don't agree with that."
Bigot's workshop also ignited Robbins' lifelong interest in European theater traditions, which favor larger stories of man's conflict in the world, often told with techniques aimed at helping the actor step outside of himself. Le Theatre du Soleil claimed a cult-like following with its uncompromising use of masks, music and movement that incorporate diverse elements of Asian history and theater.
Robbins commissioned a set of commedia masks for the Gang from the artisan who supplies Le Theatre du Soleil and used them in numerous productions including "Tartuffe," "Blood! Love! Madness!" and "Embedded." In 2001, he invited Bigot to hold a mask workshop for the company and direct a production of Chekhov's "The Seagull." Abkarian came to Los Angeles last year to continue the company's training in mask work. Now that he too is directing a play for the Gang, the three sides of the triangle have come together, or as he would say, "Voila."
"When he comes here," says Robbins, "he has 60 people who already know the vocabulary and he can take our training in a different direction. It's extraordinary to see, and so good for the company because he's doing things I would never imagine and it's beautiful, and now we have that as part of our vocabulary."
'Love's Labor's Lost'
Where: Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.
Ends: Sept. 16
Price: $20 to $25
Contact: (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com