There’s a reason why Shakespeare’s comedies are always about love. Love makes a fool of everyone. The king, the scholar, the cuckolded husband, the badly written poems, the misdirected letters, the fervent promises – they’re all hilarious. (Until it happens to us. Then it’s not funny.)
Believed to be among Shakespeare’s earliest plays, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” has never found the popularity of, say, “Twelfth Night” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and that’s too bad. Everything one could want for comedy is there - characters, setup, conflicts, and “the sweet smoke of rhetoric”; all it requires is the vision of a sharp-witted director and a great cast to carry it out.
The Folger production now on stage has both of these. Director Vivienne Benesch knew that the key to this play’s success is in the interpretation of its language – and allowing the physical comedy to follow. The result is two hours of laugh-out-loud situations in which the men, led by Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Joshua Robinson), mostly high-minded and serious gents, have vowed to forswear the company of women for three years and concentrate on intellectual pursuits. It is no surprise that they will get spun around the fingers of the Princess of France (Amelia Pedlow) and her retinue.
Ms. Benesch envisioned a set that would reflect the King’s plan for three years of unrelieved study. She found it on site in Folger’s walnut paneled Paster Reading Room, complete with bookshelves, globe, and bust of The Bard himself, all handsomely recreated by scene designer Lee Savage. To further honor the opening of the Folger Shakespeare Library, she has set the play in the 1930s. This stylish period, costumed in Tracy Christensen’s elegant confections, provides an ironic backdrop for our swains who fall in love, try to hide it from each other, finally acknowledge it, and set out to win the unwinnable damsels.
There’s not a weak link in the chain, but certain moments of scrumptious physicality stand out. Zachary Fine’s Berowne is a magnetic presence on stage, whether or not he’s in his pajamas bewailing his unrequited love. The sequence in which the four gentlemen enter separately to soliloquize on their beloveds, not realizing that they are being heard and viewed, is priceless. The exposure of offended innocence always gladdens the heart, and the king, He Who Sets the Standards, can hardly upbraid his men on moral grounds when he is discovered kissing a post as if it were his Princess.
Shakespeare’s glee in the exotic, or at least the foreign, finds expression in one hot- blooded lover, Don Armado (Eric Hissom), the “fantastical Spaniard” soldier who suddenly meets, and just as suddenly can’t live without, Jaquenetta (Tonya Beckman) our favorite gum-chewing diner waitress if ever we had one. His page, the helpful little Moth, (Megan Graves) makes a hilarious virtue of solemnly focused duty to his master.
After love, the comedies require a good mix-up of identities or at least letters, and “Love’s Labor’s Lost” has both. Such tangles are usually the job of the clown or fool, and in this case, Costard (Edmund Lewis) is the brawny tradesman complete with tool apron who gamely accepts his penance of service to Armado after being discovered with a wench. While he can be counted on to deliver love letters to the wrong lady, the ladies themselves swap identities for the further confusion of the gentlemen.
The courtship continues apace, as our lovelorn beaux disguise themselves as Russian dancers – or what they think Russian dancers would look like - and put on a performance that, while not likely to make a woman fall in love, will definitely keep her amused.
A brisk pace and Colin Bills’ lighting design moves one scene to another seamlessly. This forward momentum, one bit of craziness on top of another, culminates in the Presentation of the Nine Worthies, those towering figures of medieval chivalry deemed worthy of devotion and study. Of course, our performers will make what the English call “a pig’s breakfast” of it to our delight; there is also in its tone a hint of the famous Pyramus and Thisbe scene of a later date. One wonders where it could go from here but for the sudden entrance of a messenger and dark news for the Princess.
Where Shakespeare’s comedies by this point would be pairing lovers off in preparation for the final dance and tableaux, this development changes the tone dramatically. It leads to the first serious recognition of love’s demand for patience over the futile and pointless command for mental and physical isolation. It was, after all Berowne who declared love to be the only subject worthy of intense study, and the King, too, having withdrawn his idealistic oath, recommits himself - and his love’s labours - to his lady’s directive of one year’s devoted wait.
A superior creative vision carried out by the labor of a flawless cast and crew.