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Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

Real-Time Shakespeare

Theater Review

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Though Shakespeare often suffers at the hands of modernized productions, Love's Labour's Lost is usually an exception. Many directors have successfully set the play in the not-too-distant past, bringing the action closer to the audience's experience to offer a more accessible reading, but not so close they can't survey the characters and themes with some level of temporal detachment.

The new production directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray for Milwaukee Shakespeare removes that distance by setting it within the context of a reality show being taped in real time. It's the lowest common denominator of art imitating the highest-the gaudy trappings of "Temptation Island" and "Big Brother" bringing you the genius of Shakespeare's poetry. It's an unlikely combination-yet somehow this brazen production pulls it off remarkably well, bubbling with an energy that's palpable from the start.

The cast is largely to thank for this success. Wayne T. Carr is a suave but sentimental King Ferdinand who firmly leads his companions into an extended term of self-denial, but gently accepts his failure to meet his own terms. Molly Rhode is the object of his undoing-an alluring blend of vanity, sympathy, poise and wit. Kevin Rich is a charmingly ruffled Berowne, a cool cat reluctantly toppled by cupid's arrow; and Victoria Caciopoli plays his spicy and seductive vanquisher, Rosaline. Norman Moses is hilarious as the flamboyant Don Adriano, particularly when articulating his conflicting feelings towards Jaquenetta. His twin in idiocy, Holofernes, is played with ample oily condescension by Richard Ganoung. The role of Boyet benefits greatly from being recast as a female attendant played by a wry and watchful Angela Iannone.

The energy and apparent ease with which the cast tackles the challenging language may be partly due to the play's familiar setting, but one can't help wondering if the reality show scenario is an unnecessary device. At the beginning of the play, when T. Stacy Hicks (Costard the cameraman) sets aside the camera and steps into the action, the premise seemed a little shaky. At other times it places an awkward distance between the audience and the characters, particularly during Berowne's soliloquies-addressed to the camera, not the audience. However, this only makes moments when the camera is put aside all the more poignant. When the princess learns of her father's death, the sudden change in mood from celebratory to solemn is expressed without any intermediaries. Perhaps it's a tacit acknowledgment that art best imitates life when the sense of artifice is removed.

Through Oct. 5 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre.

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