Even though Love's Labour's Lost isn't one of William Shakespeare's best-known or best-loved plays, the lyrical, ornate story is yet another example of the sentient dramatist's incomparable ability to capture in verse the timeless truths about life's great sea changes. And while the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's visually stunning production of the tale is woefully lacking in clarity early on, director Ina Marlowe's entertaining approach still conveys the essence of Shakespeare's themes of idealism and reality.
As the play begins, four French noblemen take an oath to cloister themselves within the walls of academia, promising to forsake the pleasure of women for three years' time in order to devote themselves to more lofty endeavors. The quartet--Ferdinand, King of Navarre (John Pasha), and his followers, Biron (Randy Howk), Longueville (John Tessmer) and Dumaine (Jeremy Holm)--don academic robes and set about to become legends in their own minds. Enter their female counterparts (in exquisite costumes designed by Virgil Johnson): the Princess of France (Caroline Bootle) and her attendants, Rosaline (Kaitlin O'Neal), Maria (Anne Schilling) and Katharine (Joyce Brew), beauties all whose sheer presence causes the men to promptly abandon the pursuit of intellect.
For the remainder of the two-and-three-quarter-hour comedy, the characters engage in an elaborate series of love games while frolicking amid set designer William Forrester's fantastical environment of iridescent tree saplings, rolling catwalks and Oriental tapestries. Our testosterone-laden heroes, eminently aware of their collective lack of savoir faire, eventually disguise themselves as Muscovites in order to impress the women, who, insulted that their hapless suitors would resort to such a transparent deception, turn the tables on the would-be lovers. Along the way, we're introduced to the amateur poet, Don Armado (satisfactorily portrayed by understudy Christopher Ferry, substituting at a recent performance for the injured William Westenberg), who indiscriminately bestows his love upon the nearest woman, the peasant Jacquenetta (Terra Knudson), who has herself been unlawfully bedded by a local clown, Costard (Gareth Saxe). The pedant Holofernes (Sam Sandoe), a dim-witted constable, Dull (Gene Gillette), and the courtly ladies' lisping go-between, Boyet (Jordan Gelber), become unwitting participants in the ensuing conflicts that pit a gaggle of relentlessly idealistic men against a veritable armada of coolly aloof women.
To their credit, most of the actors are able to navigate their way through the complexities of Shakespeare's densely constructed dialogue. Howk, Bootle and Sandoe all craft subtly shaded portrayals that enliven the sometimes monotonous goings-on. Relying on a mixture of vocal gymnastics and controlled athleticism, Howk's amusingly wayward gallant nearly steals the show; his efforts are nicely counterbalanced by the steely calm of Bootle's understated monarch. And Sandoe's joyous prig is the very embodiment of pointless learning and useless information.
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However, the first half of Marlowe's production is sometimes difficult to follow, even for spectators already familiar with Shakespeare's play (during intermission, several audience members remarked that they'd missed at least half of what was said in the first act). Snippets of situation-defining dialogue, which require precise command and deft delivery, are lost when actors cross behind each other while speaking their lines; the four men fail to react convincingly to the first entrance of their distaff equals (other than dutifully crossing to one side of the stage), which makes you wonder why they all go gaga for one another a few minutes later; and a few of the production's songs (some of which would be better spoken as the poetry that Shakespeare set down) are marred by thin and sometimes painfully flat singing voices.
Still, the actors rise to the occasion by play's end, earning their fair share of laughter during a well-staged Scene of the Nine Worthies and also managing to inject the play's final, thought-provoking episode with a somber melancholy that elicits the Bard's sober message: Maturity isn't just the ability to distinguish love's eternal flame from infatuation's brief fire; it's acquired when you don't need to take a class to know the difference.
Love's Labour's Lost, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 16 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, CU-Boulder campus, 492-0554.