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THEATER REVIEW : Play Puts Bard's Tale in New Era : Sprightly, stylish production places 'Love's Labour's Lost' in Edwardian times.


Not that Shakespeare is ever a cakewalk, but 'Love's Labour's Lost' is a particularly tough nut to crack.

Of all the Shakespearean comedies, it's the one most narrowly focused on Elizabethan topical parody and nuances of language, and almost entirely sidesteps the Bard's usual complicated plot formulas. With no magical fairies, perplexing twins or cross dressers to supply the nonverbal inanity, the play can, indeed, make for a long evening of lost labors.

All the more reason to applaud PCPA Theaterfest's bright and witty staging, which breathes sprightly elegance into the tale of headstrong, ambitious youth taught a lesson by life experience.

Director Paul Barnes' decision to reset the story in Edwardian times is far from an arbitrary conceit--there are intriguing parallels between the giddy optimism of the 1920s and the smug complacency with which Shakespeare's quartet of young aristocrats view themselves.

When the boyish King Ferdinand (Jack Greenman) enlists his three schoolmates in a three-year pledge of intellectual contemplation, withdrawal from secular pursuits and celibacy, it's an ideal of isolationism not unlike the way post-World War I European society turned a blind eye to the realities that would soon overwhelm it.

In the case of Shakespeare's four nobles, however, the bursting of their artificial bubble comes not from political or economic pressures but from hormonal ones.

It takes only the arrival of a French Princess (Lisa Paulsen) and her trio of ladies to have each of the four young men secretly scheming to renege on his oath of abstinence.

As Berowne, the most adept of the foursome at verbal backpedaling, Frederic Barbour proves hilarious in his speeches of convoluted logic, wordplay and sustained paradox.

Much of the play is concerned with language--its power and its limitations--and Barnes' direction punches the specialized wordplay with broad, demonstrative characterizations from his performers.

The show-stealer is Gregg Coffin as the prissy, aristocratic Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado, rendered with an affectedly stiff poise and an ear for mispronunciation that rivals Mrs. Malaprop.

As always, Shakespeare's women have the emotional upper hand, and Paulsen's Princess, abetted by Karen Barbour's outrageous Rosaline, make short work of the males' feeble pretenses and defenses. As Berowne admits in one of his ruminations, he has fallen in love with Rosaline, and all the sophistry in his lexicon can't change the fact that he's at the mercy of his feelings.

In tackling the play's most problematic aspect--its atypically downbeat and unresolved ending--the production doesn't shy away from the darker elements, but like so many stagings before, it makes the optimistic assumption that the couples will reunite after their year of separation.

Given the story's consistent use of harsh realism to wash away romantic illusions, however, it's not an outcome that should be taken for granted.


* WHAT: "Love's Labour's Lost."

* WHERE: Solvang Festival Theatre, 420 2nd Street; in Santa Maria: Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Drive.

* WHEN: In Solvang: through Sept. 3, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:30; in Santa Maria: Sept. 8-25, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

* COST: $12-$18.

* ETC.: For reservations or further information, call (800) 549-PCPA.

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