Shakespearing #45 by John King
Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Love’s Labour’s Lost
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a weird play. There, I said it.
The premise is that four young men, in a spirit of fellowship, swear that they will forbear the company of women in order to devote themselves to a Spartan, scholarly life. The man driving this hard bargain is the Ferdinand, the king of Navarre. His cynical, witty friend, Biron, sees the impossible difficulty of this feat from the outset, but loves his fellows too much not to try.
A visitation from the Queen of France and her ladies in waiting throws this plan out of order almost immediately, but before that we have a subplot that also suggests that swearing off women, and love, is impossible. Don Armado, a lesser Spanish noble whose grasp of English is, ummm, problematic, has caught the witty and clownish Costard wooing the beautiful Jaquenetta in contradiction of the king’s edict forbidding such intercourse. Don Armado loves Jaquenetta himself, and so, for his discipline, the king places Costard into Don Armado’s questionable custody.
Shakespeare’s themes of struggling to being honest and true in a complicated world, the fallibility of the heart and the mind, and our smallness before our fates, come off in ways that sometimes seem pedantic when not hysterical in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and in the last act the turns of emotion are extreme. Love’s labors are lost, after all.
Sometimes Shakespeare’s work is a provocation for interpretation, and it is up to each acting troupe to make something coherent and whole out of some of the bard’s more wild maneuvers. Elsewhere, I have lamented the nadir of Shakespearean film, Kenneth Branagh’s version of LLL, which was set in the 1940s, so when I learned that Orlando Shakespeare Theater was having a go at it with a 1920s theme, I confess I felt a pang of terror. However, I have never seen a bad Shakespeare show at OST, and was rewarded for my faith in this company.
Jim Helsinger, who is the artistic director of OST, plays Don Armado, and it is this performance that pulls the entire production together. Helsinger somehow balances the broad slapstick of the don’s pronunciations and malapropisms and foppishness with a sense of humane tenderness that lends a gravitational weight to the larger plot. There is a hint that part of what makes Armado so uncouth is simply that he is outside of his own culture, and that his bombast, while egotistical, is not narcissistic.
And really, considering the hijinks of our four would-be sequestered scholars, such as their pretending to be a troupe of Russian dancers, is Don Armado all that foolish? By the end of the play, everyone must truly be who they are.
This would include the women of the play as well, who in their pride are willing to mock the loves of these men, and their pretensions for scholarly fellowship. Shakespeare engages deeply with romantic love, but never suggests that experiencing it will ever be easy.
Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s production of LLL speeds up the exposition, and gets to the funny sooner. One detail of Dan Conway’s set design really abetted this concision: a ring upon the stage that turned like something out of a Busby Berkeley film, or an opera, that can set tableaus in motion or suggest cinematic cutaways without forcing a stop to a scene.
The ending features a play within a play that doesn’t go as smoothly as the tale of Pyramus and Thisby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the mayhem will take a dramatic emotional turn. Thomas Ouellette’s direction manages to convey a real dreaminess to the abrupt and elliptical ending, which technically lacks Aristotelean brevity of passing time. The king tells Biron that the resolution of the plot will occur in “twelvemonth and a day, and then ’twill end,” and Biron retorts, “That’s too long for a play.” The stagecraft of Orlando Shakespeare Theater graciously makes up the difference. With another deep cut from Shakespeare’s body of work, OST finds the fun and the shocking drama that makes the play come alive.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.