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Just call it a `Labor' of love

Director Simon Abkarian brings his special brand of spatial grace to the Actors' Gang production of one of his favorite Shakespeare plays.

July 16, 2006|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

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."

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Stretching stereotypes

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.

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