Monday, July 12, 2004

The all-female cast of "Love's Labors Lost" at the 2004 Hawaii Shakespeare Festival includes Jennifer Vo, left, as Lord Berowne, Miriam Neuman as Lady Rosaline and Jennifer Robideau as the princess of France.

All-female cast
jump-starts Bard fest

"Love's Labors Lost," presented as part of the 2004 Hawaii Shakespeare Festival at Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College. Shows continue at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $16, available at all University of Hawaii ticket outlets and Call 235-7433.

A comical nobleman and a doltish knave with a knack for mime are two key elements in Tony Pisculli's successful staging of "Love's Labors Lost" with an all-female cast -- the lead-off production in the 2004 Hawaii Shakespeare Festival. Pisculli demonstrated the workability of his all-female concept with his presentation of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the 2002 festival. It works even better this time.

Joanna Sotomura uses pantomime in enlisting audience members as dancers, while the Damned Spot Drums provide pre-show entertainment. Once the preliminaries are over, Sotomura's talent as a physical comedian adds impact to her portrayal of Costard, the lowly knave whose maladroit handling of a pair of love letters brings embarrassment to the men who relied on him. Sotomura plays to the audience at several pivotal moments and makes the connection each time.

While Sotomura gives Pisculli's production a broad yet deftly played comic component, Ashley Larson transcends gender as the foppish Don Armado.

Astute work by costume designer Elizabeth Wolfe in choosing Larson's attire contributes to her success in playing a male without looking like a male impersonator or a bulky, mannish woman. But ultimately it is Larson herself who makes the portrayal believable. Larson "becomes" a male in all respects, and her performance of a fop smitten by a lowly and awkward maid (Joy Davis) keeps one of the secondary story lines percolating.

As for the romantic leads, Jessica Quinn, Jennifer Vo and Jennifer Robideau are the three who drive Shakespeare's primary story of four men struggling to balance ill-considered idealism with the temptations of the heart.

Their problems begin when King Ferdinand (Quinn) persuades three of his noblemen to sign an oath binding them to join him in three years of study, fasting, sleep deprivation and celibacy. No sooner has Lord Berowne (Vo) reluctantly joined the others in signing the agreement than word is received that the princess of France (Robideau) is approaching for a state visit. What's worse, her entourage includes several ladies that Berowne and his cohorts would like to get to know better.

Ferdinand meets the princess in a field near his castle and explains that his oath prevents him from offering her the hospitality of his court, but before long he and his lords find that the temptation to socialize is too strong to resist. For a while it seems that Berowne has the strength of will required to keep his oath inviolate -- but then a misdirected letter reveals that Berowne, too, has been trying to contact a woman in the princess's entourage.

Ferdinand and his lords find a way to rationalize the lifting of their oath, but then face another dilemma: What will the women think of them for doing so?

Vo emerges early as one of the show's major assets in one of the biggest and most important roles. Her command of the language and understanding of the character draw the audience into the story and into accepting her as a male.

She and her fellow "lords" -- Moani Miller (Lord Longaville) and Sara Grove (Lord Dumain) -- also display a nice, light touch with physical comedy. Miller stands out elsewhere as a soloist in portraying the shyest and most awkward of the three.

Quinn likewise overcomes the challenge of gender, while Robideau not only makes a beautiful princess, but brings out deeper facets of the character as well. This princess is proud, firm and well equipped to humble the men by making them confess their duplicity.

Jennifer Saepae (Mote) adds zest as Don Armado's witty "boy" and confidant. Hawaii audiences can be slow to catch rapid-fire Shakespearean witticisms, and Saepae deserved more laughs than she got for her sprightly sparring with Larson on opening night.

"Love's Labors Lost" is like many other Shakespearean comedies in appearing to end somewhat abruptly, but Pisculli's smoothly paced two-act version proves an enjoyable opener for this year's festival, and his all-female cast repays his calculated gamble.

Hawaii Shakespeare Festival

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