Hard Labour

Love's Labour's Lost is a whirlwind comedy of language in which Shakespeare's passion for words overwhelms his characters' romantic intrigues. Words are the means, and words are the end, even when he tries for loftier themes, such as the demands of true love vs. the intoxication of infatuation. Which makes this a very difficult play to stage, since (beyond exuberant punning and rhyming) not too much goes on.

Michael Addison and the California Shakespeare Festival company seem to have surrendered to the play's obstacles with an often flat, static production that comes alive only sporadically. The set (by Eric E. Sinkkonen) — a two-dimensional representation of a French Renaissance garden — contributes to the problem by virtually disappearing into the East Bay hills that form a natural backdrop. The king of Navarre and his court seem invisible as well, especially on nights when the wind and fog offer additional competition for the audience's attention.

The plot is simple: Navarre (Martin Kildare) enlists his nobles to join him in an oath of scholarship and abstinence for three years. During that time, they will sleep little, study much, eat plainly, and — most important — have absolutely no contact with women. Lords Longaville (Don Burroughs) and Dumaine (L. Peter Callender) sign up eagerly, but Berowne (Sam Gregory, who brings much needed life to his scenes) hesitates. Three years? Not too appealing. But he is persuaded in the end and signs as well.

There's just one tiny hitch: Navarre has forgotten an appointment with the princess of France (Domenique Lozano), on her way with her retinue of ladies-in-waiting. She's been sent to collect on a small matter of land. Her father thinks he has purchased the Aquitaine; Navarre thinks not (a potentially interesting conflict that Shakespeare drops). The princess is insulted to be greeted outside the gates and denied entry. Ah, gee, Navarre seems to implore, we guys took an oath; can't you understand that? What she understands, and very well indeed, is that she's being denied hospitality. This could lead to a real comedic conflict, but it too dwindles into nothing when Navarre and the princess practically swoon at first sight of each other. (Which is kind of unexpected given a princess described as “thick” — meaning on the heavy side — who has been made to look downright dowdy in a bulky dress and glasses she quickly removes and tries to hide. It's such a clichŽ you almost expect Navarre to say, “Why, why, princess, you're — you're beautiful!”) That each of the lords and ladies indulges in immediate mutual admiration flattens the action further. There's nothing left to do but utter poetic declarations of love and try to figure out how to get around that pesky oath.

Shakespeare seems to have reserved his affection for the secondary characters, and here the Festival cast does him proud. In the parallel subplot, various clowns are hindered in the pursuit of love: To be caught with a woman has become a criminal offense for which the loutish Costard (Robert Sicular) is being punished. Complications arise when the “fantastical Spaniard,” Don Adriano de Armado (given a wonderfully loopy spin by Julian Lopez-Morillas), falls in love. Malapropisms abound, and plot development hinges on comedic error when Costard mixes up letters intended for various ladies (and not-so-ladies). While we wait for the inevitable to be played out, we get discourses on love from Sir Nathaniel, a curate, played to fussy perfection by Dan Hiatt. Also outstanding are James Carpenter as schoolmaster Holofernes and Tommy A. Gomez as Constable Dull. Michael Santo earns laughs as Moth, Armado's page and perfect foil.

Even in its most rewarding moments, though, this production suffers from its workmanlike approach. In line with Sinkkonen's greeting card-like set, costume designer Warren Travis has clothed the scholars in silly-looking tights and rendered the already two-dimensional women even less distinctive in muted pastels. Love's Labour's Lost is a play that could use some help from imaginative directors and designers, but Michael Addison's team seems to have run out of steam.

My Piece of the Sky is a sugar-coated diatribe against capital punishment masquerading as solo performance theater. In residence at the Magic, it is written and performed by Ben Aronoff, who at least has his convictions (sorry) to blind him, and is directed by Martin Higgens (Rush Limbaugh in Night School), who should have known better.

Sky introduces us to seven prisoners and one guard at San Quentin, where Aronoff worked on and off for 10 years as a guard and also as a teacher of guitar. To hear him tell it, your average criminal is just a sweet, ordinary guy who happens to have committed some sort of violent crime. A lot of the show's time is devoted to mourning the execution of Robert Alton Harris — affectionately referred to as Bobby — but no time at all goes to Harris' victims.

What really intrigues me is the reverence with which Aronoff paints the death row characters. We are told that the condemned are “the most respected men in the joint,” and he seems enthralled by their celebrity. They are “the most polite, most introspective, most religious.” One of them spends his days reading the Bible. “It's really not important what crime led me here,” he tells us. (Well, maybe it's not important to him. …) “Can you see me as a friend with a sickness?” he asks.

All this had a curious effect on me. As a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, I was amazed to find myself rethinking my position (besides rude thoughts for dealing with Aronoff, that is). Sky gives us condemned murderers who are finally facing their crimes and expressing remorse. Maybe, I posited between glimpses at my watch, the death penalty does the job of getting their attention.

Of course, this is the problem with polemic theater: It raises that which it wishes to subvert. There's no drama here, only preaching. And, on opening night, there was an added irritation. The audience seemed comprised of a well-organized protest group that eagerly and without hesitation joined Aronoff in singing “Amazing Grace” at the end. No fair, warden. We wuz set up.

Love's Labour's Lost runs through Aug. 6 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda; call (510) 548-9666. My Piece of the Sky runs through Aug. 13 at the Magic Theatre in S.F.; call 441-8822.

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