Love's Labors Pay Off
There's a lot of charm, humor and zest in director Anthony Powell's production of Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost. It's an odd play -- short on plot and long on punning and wordplay, full of courtship and poetry, but for the most part skirting any deeper conception of love.
Ferdinand, King of Navarre, has decided that he and three friends will withdraw from the world and eschew all contact with women for three years, devoting themselves entirely to the joys and rigors of study. Except that the Princess of France has arrived on the king's shores to negotiate a treaty, accompanied by three of her ladies in waiting. The king is already smitten with the princess, whom he has seen before, and each of the men is intrigued by a particular member of her entourage; in every case, the interest is returned. We know pretty much right away that the men's solemn oath will be tossed aside and everyone will pair up -- there won't even be any bickering about who gets to have whom. So how is Shakespeare going to spin out the plot for another couple of hours? With humorous supporting characters, mis-delivered letters, a subplot involving a country girl and two of her swains, a masked ball and a comic pageant, that's how. And there are also the tantalizing but far-too-brief spurts of badinage between Berowne, the caustic, moody but extravagantly romantic member of the king's court, and the dark-eyed, equally caustic lady-in-waiting Rosaline, exchanges that prefigure the richer and more complex interactions of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.
Love's Labor's Lost has all the narcissism and sweetness of young love -- and some of its annoying obliviousness, as well. But the play's ending also brings a chilling and unexpected breath of winter. Powell's cast approaches the project with a playfulness that serves it well. The young people are lively, earnest, exuberantly over the top, and their doings are framed by an astonishing group of elders -- all apparently quite demented, but each one capable of genuine, if peculiar, moments of wisdom.
Aaron Serotsky is very funny as Ferdinand, though his interpretation falters when the king is required to be serious and passionate. John Sloan, who plays Berowne, is a genuine talent. He's intelligent, feelingful and playful; he animates any scene he enters. The women aren't highly differentiated in the script; they're called on to look charming and engage in a lot of arch banter. Unfortunately, Kate Gleason, as the princess, does most of the speaking, and her voice grates a little. As written, Rosaline is incomprehensibly angry much of the time. Even when a humbled Berowne asks for a truce, she refuses to grant it. Shakespeare himself was in love with a cruel and enigmatic dark lady, as evidenced by his sonnets, and critics have found elements of this infatuation in the character of Rosaline (Rosaline was also, of course, Romeo's first and unattainable love). Morgan Hallett gives the character spirit and dignity; perhaps she could have found a way to communicate more variety and dimension.
Many of the pleasures of this production arise from the casting of the lesser roles. In between love scenes, the stage is peopled with odd and fascinating characters. John Hutton is immensely funny as the absurd Don Adriano de Armado, but the don is never pure caricature. Hutton gives him nuance, vulnerability and unexpected moments of twisted intellectual triumph. David Ivers has a very strong presence as the country bumpkin Costard. He, too, is by turns dignified and ridiculous. Gary Culig has loads of impudent energy as Armado's page, Moth; Michael Santo is a dryly witty Boyet; Richard Liccardo finds every scrap of available humor in the plodding Dull. Of the lovers, Laura Heisler as Maria and Jason Henning as Longaville seem to feel the most for each other. Tony Church is always a joy to watch. So is Randy Moore. Put them together as the ridiculously learned Holofernes and the word-infatuated curate, Nathaniel, and the result is an aural feast.
The production is a visual feast, as well. Michael Brown's set provides all kinds of eloquent playing areas and embraces both the romantic and the rational: The outdoor scenes are all dappled, gray-green shadow framed by beautifully twisting trees; inside are shelves of books and scientific instruments. Don Darnutzer's lighting and Craig Breitenbach's sound design subtly and skilfully enhance the mood.
There are touches of directorial genius here, in particular the comic use made of the lily pond -- real water, and apparently quite a bit of it. I liked the actors' freedom with the language, too. They knew what they were saying, and most of their interpretative liberties paid off in laughs. But sometimes they got self-consciously funny or played to the audience too broadly. (The reading of "but breath" as "butt breath" really jarred.)
The second act stalls. Some of the problem is in the writing, but there's also too much business. The men dancing as comic-book Russians is wildly funny for a while, but it goes on far too long, and in the dialogue that follows, you start wondering if they'll ever drop the damn accent. Still, the miscalculations stem from an excess of exuberance, and that's a generous fault.
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