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It’s been a banner birthday year for the Bard here in Louisville. First Savage Rose Classical Theatre’s solid productions of “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” followed by Kentucky Shakespeare’s resurrection summer, with eight very different productions filling the Central Park amphitheatre for weeks on end, and now Actors Theatre of Louisville celebrates Shakespeare’s presumed 450th birthday with an inventive, stylized and thoroughly satisfying production of the romantic comedy “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” This production of Shakespeare’s early rom-com takes plenty of liberties with the source material, but its crash of the ridiculous into the sublime perfectly encapsulates the feeling of falling head over heels in love.  

Adapted by The Moving Company’s Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers and Dominique Serrand, who also directs, this version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” streamlines the story and cast to focus on four pairs of lovers (plus one daffy polyamorous triad) finding themselves ready for a fresh start in the wake of war. The adaptors also embarked on a literary challenge to tell the basic story of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” using dialogue from every play Shakespeare wrote. This radical remix might not satisfy Shakespeare purists, but the resulting production is, on its own merits, a feast of heightened emotions, a rollercoaster of desire, disappointment, romance and mirth.

 “Love’s Labour’s Lost” opened last night and runs through September 21 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

At the top of the show, peace has been declared between France and the state of Navarre. Ferdinand, the self-titled King of Navarre (Richard Prioleau), leads his battle-weary closest lords into seclusion for a three-year period of monastic study. Young Dumaine (Brandon Garegnani) is up for it – he has his whole life ahead of him to feast and nap and chase women – while the older, more cynical Berowne (Jim Lichtscheidl) has to summon all of his loyalty to his king to agree. Longaville (Lucas Melsha) is a haunted, silent reminder of the horrors of war they have so recently left behind.

Brandon Garegnani (Dumaine) and Ashley Rose Montondo (Katharine) in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Credit Richard Tyler Rowley / Actors Theatre of Louisville, 2014

But the best-laid plans of kings and men are soon discarded when their study party is crashed, first by a ridiculous Spanish lord, Don Armado (Epp), his addled page Moth (Keepers) and their daft babydoll girlfriend Jacquenetta (Heidi Bakke), and then by the princess of France (Kimiye Corwin) and her own soldiers – oddball Maria (Emily King), fresh-faced Katharine (Ashley Rose Montondo) and the spitfire Rosaline (Maggie Chestovich). Love is in the air – the attraction between Don Armado, Moth and Jacquenetta spills over into the royal camps and pretty soon the king has eyes for the princess, and the attendants start pairing off, too, all oaths and good intentions thrown to the wind (and the rain).

Serrand’s cast turns in bravura performances, with each actor making his or her archetypal role into a unique character. Corwin and Prioleau are regal but never stiff, while Garegnani and Montondo play the fresh-faced young lovers with a barely-contained excitement that perfectly captures the flush of first love. As the mature, cynical Rosaline and Berowne, Chestovich and Lichtscheidl (both serious comedic talents) balance the reluctance that painful experience brings to love with a palpable desire for that experience to be proven wrong this time in some of the play’s funniest scenes.

As the silent dancers whose war-damaged Longaville and Maria connect on a primal and physical level, slowly undoing from civilization to heal themselves into the woodland landscape, Melsha and King provide a sexy counterbalance to the doe-eyes and flirty banter around them. 

But it’s Epp, Keepers and Bakke who bring the house down as the bawdy, drunken fools whose earthy natures remind the audience with a hearty wink of the body’s baser desires. The fools make the most of the stolen dialogue from other plays, too, culminating in a rush of skewered quotes and references when Jacquenetta goes into labor: “What light from yonder window breaks?” and “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” they holler under her skirt and to the heavens.

Serrand’s production is stunningly theatrical, layering haunting, silent dance scenes and raucous comedy routines alike against backdrops of sheer parachutes and a simple, full-circle moon (artfully lit by Marcus Dillard) and accented by delicate woodland sounds designed by Zachary Humes. Sonya Berlovitz’s inventive costumes are a visual riot, a mash-up of Elizabethan, contemporary couture and mid-20th century looks, with a dash of Pee-wee Herman by way of Burning Man thrown in for good measure. Moth’s epaulets, slight feather wings that move independently, are a particularly delightful touch.

The best part of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is, as the original script says, how all the “wooing doth not end like an old play.” Instead of a group wedding, the lovers of both camps part after news reaches the princess that her father, King of France, has died. She will go into mourning, and her attendants follow. The couples pledge their faith to one another, but a year will go by before they can rekindle their romances. Are they truly in love, or will the feelings of this brief interlude diminish – or even dissolve – outside of the woods? Maybe their love is ephemeral, and it will vanish when the lights come up. But for a couple of hours, at least, we feel it, and they feel it, and the uncertainty of their future and the solemnity and force of their heartfelt vows are as real to anyone who has ever loved as anything on stage can ever be.