"Love's Labor's Lost" doesn't come around very often. It's one of Shakespeare's trickiest comedies, a feast of language (much of it antique) served up with little plot and lots of rapidly choreographed high jinks. A curse for a director with a pedestrian sensibility, it's a treasure chest of felicities, verbal and musical, for one with a bold imagination.
Fortunately, Simon Abkarian is positively bursting with theatrical ingenuity. His Actors' Gang production, which opened Saturday at the Ivy Substation, is one of the prettiest Shakespeare stagings to emerge in a long while.
How often do you find yourself in a theater simply relishing the act of looking? That is the experience of this miraculously graceful offering, an amorous dance (complete with lovely live underscoring by Ara Dabandjian) that repays close scrutiny with eye-catching surrealism and sheer visual delight.
Working with scenic and lighting designer Francois-Pierre Couture and costume designer Sarah Le Feber (both UCLA-trained and sublimely gifted in the art of minimalist fantasy), Abkarian conjures a storybook universe in which the romantic games between the King of Navarre (Matt Huffman) and his gentlemen and the Princess of France (Nancy Stone) and her ladies can thrive.
The action, which should have been synopsized in the program for the benefit of those who have never encountered the work and its often-puzzling Elizabethan dialect, starts with a fascinating if laughable premise: The king and his courtiers have vowed to give up women for three years while they monastically devote themselves to study. Their dream is to found an academy wherein they will make a contribution to the arts and science that will secure for them a place in posterity and thereby outfox inevitable mortality.
All of this would be well and good if it weren't for their randy humanity, which can hardly be subject to scholarly repression when a retinue of French damsels arrives at the royal park seeking lodging. Each of the men tries to conceal his state of swooning infatuation from his fellow oath-takers, but once they decide not to fight the heat of the moment they have to contend with the tart-tongued objects of their love, none of whom are exactly pushovers.
Besotted though they are, the princess and her posse simply refuse to hand over their hearts to men who have so easily forsworn their promises of chastity and who are so ridiculously glib in the pursuit of their pleasures.
Rosaline (Sabra Williams), the sharpest wit on her team, is particularly lashing toward Berowne (Brian Kimmet), the cleverest on his. A perfect match, it would seem, but as the title suggests, this is a romantic comedy that will be forced to postpone its happy ending and accommodate the reality of grief.
Abkarian appreciates the dark streak that runs through the play. This is evident not only in his handling of the messenger who arrives in the final act to bring dire news about the princess' father (a moment that is crushing in its depiction of the way casual, unsuspecting life can suddenly take a serious turn) but also in the sensitive treatment of those commedia-like figures of mockery (most notably, the pedant, the braggart, the cleric, the fool and the boy).
These courteous cutups reveal the callous narcissism of their so-called betters, particularly during the Pageant of the Nine Worthies, a series of impersonations of great figures from the past that they enact for the aristocrats' entertainment.
The ensemble has a youthful quality that, though somewhat rocky at first, ultimately works in its favor. The actors playing the king and his men definitely aren't the most fluent Shakespeareans you'll see on the boards, but they convey the spirit of idealism hormonally detoured, and Kimmet's Berowne is an ironist of sneaky magnetism.
Of the female standouts, Stone's Princess has a crisp authority in utterance and deed, while Williams' Rosaline has a wounded defensiveness that adds psychological texture to her character's razor-blade retorts.
But it's Mary Eileen O'Donnell's cross-gendered turn as the bombastic scholar Holofernes chiding Berowne for his derisive disruption of the play within the play ("This is not generous, not gentle, not humble") and Pierre Adeli as the lusty clown Costard dancing subversively toward his satisfactions that make the most indelible impressions.
Like Abkarian's production as a whole, they have a vividness that glows with something Shakespeare recognized as wisdom -- a respect for folly and the limits of time.
'Love's Labor's Lost'
Where: The Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Sept. 16
Contact: (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes