'Love's' language challenges its cast

Posted: July 22, 2003

The lineage of the just-say-no sex comedy stretches all the way back to Aristophanes' Lysistrata, and Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost is the genre's exuberant pinnacle.

With virtuoso verbal volleys, lyric flights of romantic passion, and triple-tiered bawdy puns pinballing all over the place, it's a play that can leave the audience - not to mention more than a few overmatched actors - feeling a bit lost, too.

When someone observes to Constable Dull, one of the low comedians, that he hasn't said a word for a while, his retort - "Nor understood none neither, sir" - is an answer that sums up the feelings of many a bedazzled listener.

But at its heart, Love's Labour's Lost is a celebration of language and a comedy of what happens when, in one way or another, it hinders rather than helps communication. In its best moments, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's Love's Labour's Lost brings out this crucial aspect of the play's humor and message.

The King of Navarre (Richie Haratine) is the leader of the sexual naysayers. In a moment of mad idealism, he ordains that he and his lords will take an oath to give up women for three years and devote themselves to scholarly pursuits. The aristocratic segment of the flimsy plot (this is a play of words rather than deeds) deals with what happens when the Princess of France (a graceful Amy Hutchins) and her fair ladies show up on a diplomatic mission.

The key lovers here are Berowne (Brian Linden) and Rosaline (Megan Noble), who are prototypes of those later immortal warriors in the battle of the sexes, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Unfortunately, there is very little chemistry or spark to set this Berowne and Rosaline apart from the other couples.

Linden is deft enough in his public side, as he teases his friends for compromising their oaths and then is exposed as a hypocrite himself. But his reading of Berowne's inner pain is less secure and defined. This is, after all, a man who declares, "Mirth cannot move a soul in anguish." And where you want barbed charm and an eyebrow cocked in amusement in Rosaline, Noble mostly musters little more than aggrieved petulance.

The pleasures of this production, which is imaginatively framed by director Jack Young, lie farther down the social ladder. Chief among them is a delightful Don Armado from Jim Helsinger. A preposterous twit who never uses one word when a hundred will do, Don Armado exists to prove the rain in Spain falls mainly on the inane.

Helsinger seems to have studied his Father Guido Sarducci tapes for his silly accent, and his somehow endearingly ridiculous presence galvanizes and lifts the play. Carl Wallnau's pedantic Holofernes, a serial nitpicker in the world class, and Matt Pfeiffer's earthy clown Costard are fine complements.

Young uses the simple set effectively and has his players make their entrances and exits down the aisles in a way that lures the audience into action.

The downbeat ending and the intrusion of reality (the news of the death of the Princess' father) change the tone of the comedy abruptly. The ladies depart for a one-year period of mourning, insisting that their lovers prove their passion by waiting that long for their reward.

The men look forlorn and stricken like Eagles fans in severe hoagie withdrawal. In one of the production's inspired touches, the women depart up one aisle and the men the other. All carry unlit lamps on their separate ways, archly suggesting that the fires of youthful ardor may well be quenched before the year is out.

Contact theater critic Desmond Ryan at 215-854-5614 or dryan@phillynews.com.

Love's Labour's Lost

Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Jack Young, settings by Fritz Szabo, costumes by Janus Stefanowicz, lighting by Bob Mond.

The cast: Brian Linden (Berowne), Megan Noble (Rosaline), Amy Hutchins (Princess), Richie Haratine (Navarre), Jim Helsinger (Don Armado), Matt Pfeiffer (Costard), Carl Wallnau (Holofernes).

Playing at: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, through Aug. 2. Tickets are $30 to $35. Information: 610-282-3192 or pashakespeare.org.

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