There is much to like in this outdoor production of Love’s Labor’s Lost — the time passes by quickly and there are plenty of smiles along the way.
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare. Directed by Steven Maler. Staged by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company on the Boston Common, Boston, MA, through August 7.
By Bill Marx
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company turns 21 this year, so Free Shakespeare on the Common is now well past its adolescence. At this point, there is no longer any reason for my geriatric (but genial) “Kids, get off the Boston Common lawn!” speech. Because they are staged outdoors (with the inevitable jet flyovers) and watched by hundreds of people, these free productions must be broadly acted as well as miked to the point of thunderous clarity. In this context, the human voice, the supple instrument the Bard intended to deliver his verse, all-too-often becomes a perpetual shout, sometimes flattening into sonic mush. Would Shakespeare’s plays have been the same if the Globe Theatre had been amplified, its performance sound reaching out beyond the space’s original dimensions (it was 55 feet across, with three semi-circular galleries that could hold approximately 1500 people)? I think technology would have shaped the poetry — and not for the better.
The expansive language of the tragedies, histories, and denser comedies demand psychological subtlety and creative interpretation. So, for me, the most successful of the past CSC productions have been those of the less complicated comedies. An air of good cheer, generated by amiable music and cartoon physicality, works well under the stars. There was a particularly amusing Comedy of Errors a few years back, and I am happy to report that another early farce, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is receiving an enjoyable outing this time around. The script’s plot and characterizations are relatively simple, so little heavy theatrical lifting is required. It’s a variation on the old women hater’s club routine — though there is a remarkable coup de théâtre at the end.
The King of Navarre convinces three of his sharp-tongued male friends to swear off their bodily appetites, particularly for women, in order to dedicate themselves to the rigors of higher learning. But the pleasures of the flesh cannot be repressed for very long. A Spanish hanger-on at the court, Don Armado, falls for Jaquenetta, who has caught the eye of servant Costard. And then Princess of France shows up with her retinue of eyefuls. Soon the guys’ oats are forsworn, lies are told to hide hoped-for assignations, love letters penned and sent, disguises donned (as Russians!), and furious wooing commenced. The women are flattered by the attention (and the gifts) but are understandably wary of these fair weather misogynists — they give the guys a very hard time. And, in turn, reality comes in to slap everyone down, hard.
Shakespeare is making fun of intellectuals here, particularly wits whose exercise of linguistic repartee shows little empathy for the victims of their slicing-and-dicing. He may also be dramatizing his knack for making the play of language an end in itself. It is as if Shakespeare is attempting to exorcise — through the arrogance of Navarre and his smarty-pants buddies — his urge to hide from (or patronizingly demean) the world through the genius of his poetry. Love’s Labour’s Lost has fun interweaving the clever and the witless — the clowns here range from the barely sentient Costard to the pedant-to-the-point of absurdity, Holofernes. But there is an ironic point to the I.Q. mash-up: neither group, the brainiacs or the brainless, is more in touch with reality than the other. There are limits to what the mind can do.
Critics have noted the musicality of Love’s Labour’s Lost lyricism, so it is no surprise that director Steven Maler takes his staging cue from American musical comedy. (On occasion, the music-driven transitions between scenes go on too long.) The male performers are more or less hopped-up, pitched to the point of caricature. As Berowne, the most interesting of the nobles, Jason Bowen offers more than just just bright enthusiasm. He makes the character’s mix of superiority and awkwardness charming and maintains, no matter the circumstances, a sense of quick intelligence. Bowen’s fast-paced verbal duels with his lady love, Rosaline, played here with whiplash glee by Obehi Janice, are easily the highlights of the production. Their exchanges are enough to make you want to see the actors go full tilt by playing Beatrice and Benedick in a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Jennifer Ellis also supplies some dignified mischievousness as the Princess of France.
My reservation with Maler’s approach is that it reduces the guys to likable goofballs, which weakens Shakespeare’s satiric indictment. There should be intimations of monstrousness behind Navarre’s decision to exclude women from his sight. (And his puritanical demand that others withdraw from sexuality as well.) A few seasons back a Huntington Theatre Company production of the play dared to make the men (including Berowne) somewhat haughty and unpleasant. The hostile reactions of the females become more understandable that way, and the ending, in which the men are asked to learn humility and self-control, more pointed. Here they come off as your standard musical protagonists getting their standard showbiz comeuppance. (Bowen’s Berowne is too nice.)
Still, there is much to like here — the time passes by quickly and there are plenty of smiles along the way. The play’s zanies are placed in wise slapstick hands, from Larry Coen’s wonderfully clueless Costard to Remo Airaldi’s accented-to-the-point-of-madness Don Armado and Fred Sullivan, Jr.’s perfectly myopic Holofernes. But the ending, with its abrupt reminder of mortality, should be anticipated in some way. Maler chooses to concentrate on the antics generated by the silly courtships; there are no suggestions that reality is exerting any pressure on the Bard’s comic bubble. (The directors airlifts in some hefty Shakespearean poetry at the conclusion, but it is too little too late.)
Years ago I saw a terrific Love’s Labour’s Lost at a theater in London. Small pieces of the set, parts of the wall, a lighting lamp, fell from time to time during the production. None of the characters took notice of the mess, nothing was cleaned up. It was the powerful visualization of a brilliant idea — in this play the Bard is constructing and deconstructing farce at the same time. The bearer of tragic news stumbled through one of the holes in a crumbling wall. Given how desperately today’s theater clings to inspirational escapism, Shakespeare’s 400 year old warning remains indispensable — theater can only hold off acknowledging reality for so long.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.