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theater: Hats Off

Encore's "Love's Labour's Lost" is a fast and fun production that plays with a smirk.

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The rapid-fire character shifts require considerable concentration on the part of the audience. And the confusion is intensified by the relentless bombardment of wordplay and inside jokes (even by Shakespearean standards). Unless you are already familiar with the play, you should read the summary in the program before the show, and focus on the hats during the opening scenes. Once you figure out which character belongs to what hat, you'll have less trouble following the story.

Fortunately for us, this isn't one of Shakespeare's more elaborate plots. Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, (Larry Tobias), decrees that he and his lords shall devote themselves to scholarship and forgo contact with women for a period of three years. Before long, a beautiful princess from France (Nedra McClyde) arrives with her three ladies. Their appearance initiates a swirl of romantic deception, misunderstanding and Marx Brothers-like hyperactivity.

Until we get our bearings,Tobias carries the show. As the king, he is the picture of self-conscious importance pretending to be otherwise. But in a split second (and wearing a wide-brimmed hat) he becomes Don Armado, a ridiculous Spaniard who has fallen in love with Jacquenetta, the country wench (amusingly played at one time or another by everyone in the cast). As Armado, Tobias strums a guitar and delivers his lines with a hilarious Desi Arnazesque accent. Chewing up the scenery, he does everything but break into a rendition of Babalu.

As Lord Berowne, Grant Mudge conveys the nuances of a character who is smug but yet somehow charming. The male characters in Shakespeare's comedies may be cocky and condescending, but they also have a "little boy" appeal that the women apparently find irresistible.

Like Tobias and Mudge, the rest of the cast (Robbie Winston, Andrea Ferraz and McClyde) always seems to have the right look of casual bemusement. For slapstick humor to work, it must appear effortless and spontaneous. This is especially difficult when reciting Elizabethan dialogue, but everyone here is up to the challenge.

Mudge also directs the play and has done a clever job of choreographing the movement to accommodate the small cast. Though many scenes require intricate timing, nothing appears forced or contrived.

Unlike most of Shakespeare's comedies, "Love's Labour's Lost" doesn't end with a marriage. According to Lord Berowne, "Our wooing doth not end like an old play." In fact, the play ends with an almost Hollywood-like promise of a sequel: Will these men live up to the new oaths required of them by the women? Probably not. But there's little doubt that these characters will break their promises with both studied elegance and a complete absence of regret. S



"Love's Labour's Lost" is playing at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Rd., through July 20. Tickets cost $10-$17, call 1-866-BARDTIX.

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