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LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Langham

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Starring Trent Pardy, Alana Hawley and Peter Donaldson

**

Love's Labour's Lost is a play about wit and its limitations; fittingly, this production features actors who are witty but limited.

A showcase for members of the festival's Birmingham Conservatory for the Classical Theatre, it has the unfortunate feel of a class presentation with nice costumes.

The story, for the unfamiliar, is fairly straightforward. The young King of Navarre (Trent Pardy) has persuaded three of his friends to swear an oath that they will spend three years in solemn study, fasting regularly and, most importantly, avoiding women at all costs.

Of course, no sooner have their signatures dried on the parchment than the Princess of France (Alana Hawley) and her three beautiful companions arrive.

Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder, and the four men quickly break their vows. Once they each discover that the others have done so, they set about wooing their symmetrical quartet of ladies in earnest. The women see through their empty pickup lines, however, and deem their love too shallow. They leave, after hearing of the King of France's death, telling the men to try again next year. This isn't what any of the men were expecting; they thought they were in a comedy.

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As courtier Berowne puts it, somewhat incredulously: "Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill."

You can see why this isn't Shakespeare's most popular play. On the whole, you just end up wanting to see these characters and ideas as they develop in his later works. Berowne (Ian Lake) and Rosaline (Dalal Badr) make you long for Much Ado's sharper-tongued Benedick and Beatrice, while the Nine Worthies comic play-within-the-play at the end makes you long for the mechanicals' Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Langham had great success with the Love's Labour's Lost at Stratford in 1961, however, and again many times since. Under his tutelage, these young company members do speak the text clearly and crisply. But saying that the production is intelligible is damning it with faint praise.

Ian Lake's Berowne, who produces prodigious amounts of spittle, is the most interesting of the younger performers, managing to make us feel there's a real, relatable person under that torrent of puns and 400-year-old in-jokes. Of the women, Hawley stands out with her warm, intelligent presence, but ultimately all four seem fairly interchangeable; none really distinguishes herself.

On the comedy front, the young are shown up by their elders - and their junior - who, to be fair, have the funnier parts. Brian Tree's Costard is a heartwarming rustic (whose affable ignorance recalls Coach on Cheers), while Peter Donaldson doesn't even break a sweat to become this production's highlight as the quixotic Don Adriano de Armado, even with a Spanish accent that wanders hither and thither. (He is indeed "Spain-ish", as one character says.)

Armado's page, Moth, is played by Abigail Winter-Culliford, 11 years old and apparently unencumbered by ideas that Shakespeare is any more difficult to understand than a child's book of riddles. The two of them are a charming double act.

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As with his Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, I initially found John Vickery a little too broad as the pompous schoolmaster Holofernes. (It doesn't help that Langham has directed him to expel gas from both ends.) But then he surprised me with a couple of comic speeches and, in the play-with-in-a-play, wounded me with his rebuke to the nobles who mock the earnest performance: "This is not generous, not gentle, not humble." Touché.

Langham, a former artistic director of Stratford who returned to direct this production at the age of 88, is certainly deserving of all these things, and nobody really wants to pick apart a production full of conservatory members. But as Rosaline says: A jest's prosperity lies in the ear/ Of him that hear it, never in the tongue/ Of him that makes it.

While I'm certain that the participants got a lot out of working on this, there's little reason to see this particular Love's Labour's Lost unless to tick it off in your Collected Works.

Love's Labour's Lost continues at Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre until Oct. 4 (1-800-567-1600).

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