Friday, September 10, 2004

Everything works in 'Love's Labour's'

Theater reviews

By Jackie Demaline
Enquirer staff writer

In the spirit of the Sixties, a must-see theater "happening" opens the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival season.

The Vietnam era is an inspired setting for Love's Labour's Lost, a scrambling comedy about a quartet of reckless and feckless guys in love. It's the silliest possible romp, but anchored to something darker and hard to define - the perfect start-up to a season that carries the theme "Love & War."

The Festival clearly has recruited its best company ever, and director Brian Isaac Phillips has harnessed and focused the higher than high energy into something that could feed a nuclear reactor.

An idealistic (not to say na´ve) young king (Jeremy Dubin) strong-arms his three best friends into swearing to give up women, food and sleep (funny, there's no mention of beer in the oath ...), the better to devote their lives to study.

The ink isn't dry when the loves of their lives appear on the scene, in the persons of the Princess of France (Corinne Mohlenhoff) and her ladies in waiting.

Dubin and Mohlenhoff are terrific as always - he has a gift for sharing his heart, she's a nifty hybrid of That Girl and Barbarella in her trim suit and go-go boots. But it's verbal sparring partners Berowne (Giles Davies) and Rosaline (Nancy Evermann), best friends of the royals, who are the actual leads.

Evermann is engaging as a bright and soulful free spirit, but Davies anchors the show, creating a man who is smart, intense and self-knowing and giving a performance that we'll remember at the end of the 2004-05 theater season.

Loony comic support appears from all quarters, starting with Matt Johnson, having a high time riffing on the stereotype of the Spanish conquistador. Christopher Guthrie's dazed and confused bumpkin will keep you grinning - even as he steals your heart.

Costumer Heidi Jo Schiemer's hard work on the vintage, not to say rummage shop, fashions couldn't be more fun. (Although Dubin needs a better shoe choice to go with his Sgt. Pepper royal outfit.)

Huge credit goes to Phillips, who keeps everyone's motives transparent and maintains two strong emotional lines, the delirious comedy that he blows so big you fear it's going to explode, and the part that is achy and breaky and not funny at all.

Shakespeare didn't give Love's Labour's Lost an ending. He closes with a postponement. Read the title carefully and consider the season theme - Love & War - and don't be amazed that Phillips is in a melancholy frame of mind.

It made me a little melancholy, too. Davies, so compelling in so many roles for the festival over the years, most recently in the title role of Dracula last year, will only be back for the holiday show as he concentrates on music. Guthrie, who can shine with big wattage from within, is also moving on - happily only as far as Know Theatre Tribe, where he's signed on as a resident member for 2005.

If you haven't tried Cincinnati Shakespeare before, now is the time. The festival is starting its second decade stronger than ever. If it maintains this pace, it's going to be a powerhouse season.

Love's Labour's Lost, through Oct. 3, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St., 381-2273.


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