at Ivy Substation
The "u" is gone from the Labour of the title, but this production puts the "you" at the forefront in its audience-pleasing, intellect-stirring, eye-catching production. We see nothing self-indulgent in either the direction, by Simon Abkarian, or by the large and for the most part skilled cast.
The production takes a few minutes to come to full bloom, but it stays lively, warmed in the southwestern European sun of Francois-Pierre Couture's lighting design, embraced in his très chic scenic design. Each actor is very present and alive onstage, and each can be well-heard in the cavernous brick space. But some are not quite ready for the level of Shakespeare that the top-flight members of the cast wrap their heads around.
The stellar performance is turned in by Robert Shampain, as Don Armado, created with practiced craft and humor; he speaks as if an improvised chat, his physicality fully in character. Also startlingly good is Mary Eileen O'Donnell, who plays the schoolteacher Holofernes; we wouldn't know her gender but for the program credit, as she walks, talks, sits as do men. Particularly charming are Matt Huffman's King of Navarre, Brian Kimmet's Berowne, Ethan Kogan's Longaville, and Sabra Williams' Rosaline.
Among the glories of the direction, the play-within-a-play about Hector of Troy is slyly mounted behind a gauzy curtain so the royals watch the show facing us while we have the fun of watching the "backstage" goings-on. The masked ball is given a song made up of recognizable Russian words, well-choreographed, turning the stage into a whirling mass while ensuring all the actors look good dancing.
Not all is perfect. Among the Actors' Gang's signatures are bench-lined walls, on which actors (some, not all, and the distinction is not clear to some of us) sit, awaiting entrances. We don't mind the concept—indeed it often enhances the shared experiences of actors and audiences—but the joy lessens when we can spot the actors peeking out at the celebs in the audience. Also disappointing is the dark, slow, weepy parting-for-one-year exchange. These moments aside, the production is a highlight of this summer's plethora of local Shakespeare.
Presented by The Actor's Gang at Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Jul. 22-Sep. 16. (310) 838-4264. www.theactorsgang.com.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies