Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
Until last night, "Love's Labors Lost" was one of a handful of Shakespeare's plays that I had neither read nor seen performed. When I read up on the play in preparation, I discovered that it had long been considered one of the very earliest and worst of Shakespeare's plays, in fact it was considered for many centuries poor entertainment, even poor theatre - impossible to stage or to act.
Around the middle of this century those attitudes began to change. The play re-emerged as a theatrical entertainment, and some scholars even went so far as to reconsider the date of its writing to place in amongst Shakespeare's most prolific and brilliant creative period, during which he wrote his great poems, and plays such as "Richard II" and "Romeo and Juliet".
I am no scholar, but having seen the Shakespeare and Company production, I can say the following: This is a very silly play, and it is quite delightful in its silliness. This is a truly terrific production - brilliantly directed and cast - which brings out all of the play's copious wit and humor while downplaying its weak points. I am not one to laugh out loud in theatres, even at fairly amusing antics, but I distinctly heard myself laughing at several points during "Love's Labors Lost".
Director Cecil MacKinnon refers to "Love's Labors Lost" as "a great festival of a play", and he is quite right. Every element is multiplied by at least five - there are five love sick young men and five love sick young women, and at least five characters who could easily fall into the category of fool. MacKinnon claims that Shakespeare was influenced by the Italian Commedia del'Arte, which appears most likely.
The King of Navarre (Johnny Lee Davenport) and three of his attending Lords take a vow to foreswear the company of women for three years. No sooner do sign the oath, than the Princess of France (Tod Randolph) and three lovely ladies of her court arrive to ask for the return of lands lost in a recent war. Everyone falls in love with everyone, there's a lot of mistaken identity, the oath is broken, but at the end of the play the death of the Princess's father is announced and all the lovers vow to live in celibacy for a year of mourning. You weren't expecting that last bit, were you? I refer you to the title of the play. It isn't called "Love's Labors Won".
In the midst of all this courtly love - into which considerable comedy is injected by Berowne (Allyn Burrows) one of the King's lords, and Costard (Gerry Bamman) the clown - comes a "fantastical Spaniard" Don Adriano de Armado (Dan McCleary), his wisecracking servant Mote (Antonia Freeland) and a pack of young "students" who seem inexplicably attached to them. Costard and Armado are both smitten with the pretty country wench Jacquenetta (Christine Calfas). Late in the play yet more comedy is introduced when the young student's verbose Schoolmistress Holofernes and a pompous young curate Nathaniel (Peter Wittrock) arrive and are invited to perform a pageant for the amusement of the visiting Princess, who also has a comic servant Boyet (Dennis Krausnick). There's one other funny (and talented) fellow on the stage in the person of Constable Anthony Dull (Manu Narayan).
In the midst of all this plot, songs are sung, dances are danced, deer are hunted, ships arrive under full sail, two pageants and a masquerade take place, and everyone swings through the trees. "Love's Labors Lost" is performed on the outdoor Main Stage at The Mount, and there are literally ropes and ladders and swings hung from the very real trees on stage. Set designer Jim Youngerman gives some mumbo jumbo in the program about the lines of the ropes representing the "divergent character of the two worlds/states of mind on stage". He's welcome to believe that, but I think they are just there for fun. This is one big silly play - why not swing from the trees?
This is a long (three hours) and massive play, with 20 speaking roles and 28 extras. One of the things that constantly amazes me about Shakespeare and Company is their ability to find hoards of uniformly talented and appealing performers. Was there anyone on the stage who didn't perform their parts well and make me laugh or cry or wonder? No. It seems a shame therefore to single out a few performers by name, but I did especially admire Burrows understated yet hilarious Berowne; Randolph's regal yet girlish Princess, Bamman's just plain silly Costard; and Krausnick's frolicsome Boyet. My hat is off to McCleary for creating a comic Spaniard who doesn't sound like Ricky Ricardo. And Narayan was anything but Dull with his singing, dancing and saxophone solo.
"Love's Labors Lost" runs through August 29 on the outdoor Main Stage at Shakespeare and Company's home at The Mount on Plunkett Street in Lenox. The show runs three hours with one intermission, but I would recommend taking older children to see this production because it is great fun. This is an outdoor performance, so dress for the weather and take precautions against the bugs! Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999