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Shakespeare's Seinfeldian Comedy Hot

Michael Kostroff
Written by Michael Kostroff     December 06, 2008    
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Shakespeare's Seinfeldian Comedy

Photos: Angele Dayer

  • Love's Labour's Lost
  • by William Shakespeare
  • The Porters of Hellsgate
  • December 5 - December 28, 2008
Acting 4
Costumes 4
Sets 3
Directing 4
Overall 4

Unofficially known as the sit-com where “nothing happens,” the highly-rated Seinfeld nevertheless ran for a whopping nine seasons, a rare score in the world of disposable entertainment. And we loved tuning in to watch those four under-employed, self-analyzing neurotics muse and plan and theorize and somehow accomplish so little. In a similar vein (though, in all likelihood, not inspired by the TV hit), Love’s Labour’s Lost, is unusual among Shakespeare’s work in that there is no war, no great storm separating identical shipwrecked twins, no family feud, no big event…in a sense, nothing happens. There isn’t even a villain—at least not the living and breathing kind. But it could be argued that in this story, the villain is the form-over-functional use of clever language for its own sake, and the love of one’s own words, an indulgent reveling in the verbal sword-play of rhetorical debate when these characters might have been far better served by plain-spoken expression, compassion and honesty. For after all the overblown vows and Latin wordplay and pranks and masks and flowery correspondence, the play reveals the meaning of its title as Shakespeare, in a resonant and bold move, leaves us without the requisite happy ending one would expect in such a light piece. No wedding. No big closing number. A fluffy cake without its frosting.

Rounding out their second season, the charming and refreshing Porters of Hellsgate offers this pleasingly perplexing comedy in a cozy little theatre in North Hollywood, amidst a backdrop of painted walls that vaguely recall the work of the French artist, Rousseau, imbuing the small, boxy theatre with a sense of freedom and frivolity that helps one forget its squareness. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s good, and here in Hollywood, where so many stage offerings seem designed only to attract the attention of TV casting directors, it’s hard not to be won over by the plucky, art-for-art’s sake enthusiasm and commitment of this youthful company, formed by three Shakespeareans barely out of high school. It’s hard not to root for them, these new generation thesps. Their love of the Bard, their respect for the language, and a genuine desire to entertainingly convey its meanings to their guests are evident.

So, while the quality of the performances may be uneven, and while the set is clearly cobbled together on a budget, and while the curtain call may be awkward and sloppy, it’s hard not to grade on a curve. When all is said and done, the short review is this: In Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Porters of Hellsgate offer playgoers a truly good time at the theatre.

All three founders of the company appear in this production, with Charles Pasternak doing double duty as director and star, a combination traditionally discouraged in theatre and one for which this production suffers a bit. (An outside eye might have corrected some of the clunkier staging and weaker lighting cues, and fused some of the missed connections between actors.) Nevertheless, onstage, Pasternak gives us a wonderfully appealing and relatable Berowne who is at once critic and victim of all the frivolity, and he does so with such charm, wit, humor and presence that he lifts the level of all around him. Like a Shakespearean Fred Astaire, he’s so good at his craft that he makes his partners look good.

Among those on-stage partners are several applause-worthy stand-outs, including Matt Calloway, who delivers Dumaine’s comic consternation with the easy, un-pushed performance that is the mark of a confident pro. Dan Sykes as Moth is a sarcastic, beleaguered, over-the-whole-thing servant, and brings to the role a wonderful gift for making us forget we’re hearing archaic language. The same is so of the delightful Dylan Booth Vigus, whose Constable Dull, in trying to keep up with all the verbose intellectuals, goes from plucky attempts to utter despair to total lack of interest, with truthful and satisfying comedic results. And Bill Quade, in two tiny roles, brings such touching honesty and depth to those humble endeavors that one can’t help but fantasize about what magic he might do as Lear’s Fool or Hamlet’s Polonius.

Special mention must be made of Gus Krieger’s deftly silly work as “Mr. I-love-the-sound-of-my-own-voice” himself, Don Armado. Young Mr. Krieger has made the audaciously risky choice of doing Shakespeare with a thick Castilian lisp, coupled with a strangely loose tongue, resulting in a giggle-provoking speech pattern that looks and sounds as if he’s perpetually sampling offerings at a Spanish wine tasting. And yet, Krieger has fully justified that audacity, artfully and solidly landing comedic hits while—miraculously—managing to be more clearly understood with the accent than many of his colleagues who aren’t encumbered by such oral calisthenics. He’s broad, but grounded, and, along with Pasternak, provides one of the highlight characterizations of the evening.

Krieger’s top-notch performance is slightly diminished by the confusing directorial choice of having him skulk, ghost-like, past characters who presumably don’t see him, to share the reading of his letters with the character doing the reading—sort of a split-screen effect which is not called for by the play’s text, and requires a larger space and more sophisticated lighting to carry off. At the very least, the on-stage balcony might have offered a better sense that he was in another location. And the confusion is compounded when Boyet, reading one of the letters, interacts directly with the formerly invisible Armado.

And speaking of strange choices, I was hard pressed to justify the occasional breaking of the fourth wall in this production by random characters at random points, mid-dialogue. Soliloquies and asides delivered directly to the house are de rigueur, but this business of stepping out of a scene, walking up to a poor helpless audience member with the bad fortune to be sitting in the first row, looking into their eyes, and acting at them is both uncomfortable and nonsensical. Similarly baffling is Thomas Bigley’s choice, as Boyet, to playfully shove his Princess (a poised and elegant Samantha Stinger), sometimes in the head. It would seem that the dictates of rank and protocol might suggest other behavior.

Our lovely ladies, said Princess and her court—good solid actresses all—seem at points to have made a backstage bet to see who could get her lines out the quickest, leaving many of us unable to grab the ideas as they flew by. Also lacking are discernable differences among their characters, or much in the way of personal stakes. None seems torn apart with romantic rapture, nor shy, nor giddy, nor cautionary, nor lusty. These, I want to emphasize, are flaws in approach, not ability, and I’d look forward to seeing any of these talented women on stage in the future. Also, to be fair, one could easily make a case that these are not Shakespeare’s most complex and meaty female roles. After all, this is a play largely about frivolity.

A particularly surprising success is in the area of costuming—one assumes there’s little budget for this either—where designer Jessica Pasternak miraculously manages to suggest a period look evocative of The Great Gatsby (another story about people who have all and yet nothing). Her dandified Boyet, the overly flamboyant Don Armado, a hotel doorman-like Dull, and the tweedy professor-ish Holofernes are stand-outs alongside her well-designed gaggle of college boys and lithesome ladies.

Do not for a moment be put off by the few minor shortcomings mentioned here. The Porters of Hellsgate are a talented bunch, and Love’s Labour’s Lost is a worthy and entertaining production. But do know that this is not a production for theatre snobs. Attend with a spirit of acceptance and openness and adventure, as I did, and, as I was, you will be very glad you came.

On opening night, the small house was nearly full—always a happy sight. And it seems this company is succeeding where others have failed in attracting younger audiences—close in age to most of the cast—whose approval was expressed with applause and “whoo”s at each black-out.

So, go. Go to North Hollywood to both enjoy and support this young and delightful troupe of players. Go for the fun of it. Have some hearty laughs while your Bard-loving hosts work their magic in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Just don’t sit in the front row

Love’s Labour’s Lost plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with Sunday matinees at 3:30pm through Sunday, December 28 at The Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd in North Hollywood. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors. To reserve tickets please call (310) 497-2884.

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