Love's Labour's Lost
Director Gavin Cameron-Webb has set Love's Labour's Lost in a house in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1917, just before America's entrance into the First World War. The set, by Andrea Bechert, is green and appealing, with topiary trees, two slim stone statues flanking the stage and, in the center, a water fountain surrounded by benches — a fountain that has some expressive abilities of its own. The proceedings open with a long mime sequence, showing the flirtatious Jaquenetta being courted by her two swains — the absurd Don Armado (here a Cuban rather than a Spaniard) and the clownish gardener, Costard — and thoroughly enjoying their attention. There's prancing, dancing and a Buster-Keatonish chase, and this light, charming interlude signals the tone of the production, even if it goes on a bit.
The plot involves four wealthy young students who, led by Ferdinand, swear to retire for three years to a life of study, abstinence and contemplation. Barely have their oaths been spoken than the Countess of France enters on a financial mission with her retinue of beautiful young women, and love is in the air. Cameron-Webb's program notes frame the women's arrival as an intrusion of reality — the reality of battle-torn France — into Ferdinand's sealed and privileged world, but the ladies are just as lighthearted as the men, if slightly less juvenile and pompous. All of the lovers are fairly generic except for Berowne and Rosaline: He is skeptical and moody and has the play's most beautiful speeches; she's cranky and cryptic. These two are generally seen by scholars as early versions of the far wittier and more complex Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing; the same scholars point out connections between Rosaline and the dark-haired, hard-hearted lady of Shakespeare's sonnets.
Barzin Akhavan's energy and wild spoofery as Berowne is enjoyable for a while, but it eventually becomes hypermanic and over the top; this Berowne seems more like a kid you'd find hanging out on the streets of Brooklyn than a privileged young scholar. Elgin Kelley's Rosaline is enigmatic, but not as intriguing as she might be. The most charming of the lovers is Mat Hostetler's Ferdinand, the sweetest Ian Andersen's Dumaine, the most interesting Matt Mueller's Longaville. Jennifer Le Blanc is a pretty princess, and Jamie Ann Romero manages to make something interesting of the tiny role of Katherine, pouting because her suitor's given her gloves instead of the jewelry the other women received.
Since the romances here hold little suspense, much of the focus is on a group of comic characters: Costard; Armado, with his hilariously mispronounced verbal flourishes; Holofernes, a pedantic schoolmaster; the aptly named policeman Dull; the smooth diplomat Boyet. There are plot elements that Shakespeare developed further in other comedies: masked dancing and misplaced insults as in Much Ado; a performance by the intellectuals for the gentry reminiscent of the production Bottom and his friends mount in A Midsummer Night's Dream (which Cameron-Webb directed for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival last year). The humor is very much of its time, with punning and allusions that would have had Shakespeare's audiences howling with laughter but are pretty much incomprehensible now.
Still, this production does a good job of keeping things lively and funny — but often at the cost of character and verbal precision. Much of the lift and energy comes from Geoffrey Kent as Dull, Stephen Weitz as Costard and Seth Maisel, who plunges into the role of Moth with a cheeky, crazed, all-stops-out physicality. As Armado, Seth Panitch relies on an outrageous accent and lots of crazed gesticulating; the approach works well at first, but since you can never quite figure out what he's saying, the character eventually devolves into a package of tics. (At the Denver Center Theatre Company five years ago, John Hutton's Armado was every bit as funny, but he was also vulnerable, odd and human — and you could understand every word he spoke.) Holofernes and his sidekick, Nathaniel, are rather extraneous to the action and often annoying to watch — and as Holofernes, William C. Kovacsik makes mush of the lines.
The tone shifts abruptly in the fifth act, when, after the buffoonish merriment of the Russian dance and the play of the Nine Worthies (both of which I found over-long, though the rest of the audience clearly enjoyed them), a messenger arrives from France to tell the countess that her father has died. This is an odd transition, but Ted Barton has a voice and presence strong and fine enough to signal the movement from youth to sober adulthood, and from spring to shadowed fall. But adding a full-cast chorus of "Keep the Homefires Burning" really isn't necessary.
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