Love's Labour's Lost is a Delight of Silly Physical Comedy, But Not Shakespeare's Best Work (4 stars)

Love's Labour's Lost (4 stars)

 

by Johnny Monsarrat

 

Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare, runs July 20 to August 7, 2016, free on Boston Common, directed by Steven Maler, produced by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, with Scott Bradley, Set Designer; Nancy Leary, Costume Designer; Eric Southern, Lighting Designer; Dave Remedios, Sound Designer; Kevin Schlagle, Production Stage Manager; Yo-el Cassell, Choreography & Movement; Monica Giordano, Assistant Director. See www.commshakes.org.

 

There's nothing like outdoor theatre. Visit Boston Common this week and you'll find Love's Labour's Lost, a silly comedy where three students and their king pledge to study hard and avoid love. They will lock themselves away from women completely. Then a foreign princess arrives with three maidens, and you can guess what happens.

 

It all takes place under the night sky on an elaborate green stage that signifies the garden and field outside the king's castle. The scenery, by Scott Bradley, is configurable, like a hedge maze, to lend some variety, and creating a wall of greenery in a scene where the men defiantly try to stop the women from entering their clubhouse, I mean, their castle.

 

I'm reading a book, The Story of Human Language, by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University. And he confesses that even as a professional linguist he can't follow the plot of a Shakespeare play. So not being a professor perhaps I can admit that I have the same trouble. I can't be the only theatregoer who gets a bit tired of needing to pretend that Shakespeare is always poetic. Much of the time, I just don't get it.

 

So this presents a challenge and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company is brave to take it on. Understandably, as professional artists with a love of nuance, and the time to study Shakespeare and learn its meaning, like most Shakespeare companies they don't want to change the script. (Though Shakespeare is translated into foreign languages and still considered art.) Instead the cast makes Shakespeare more comprehensible by adding physicality to the script. They emphasize phrases or add body language at key times, for example rolling a hat to indicate what is meant by "bowling".

 

There's also physicality in the humor. The play is laugh out loud funny in places. Still pretending to spurn affection, the men disguise themselves as Russians to attend a party but are comically unprepared to pretend to be from a foreign land. Kudos to costume designer Nancy Leary for the easily seen through mustaches and fezzes. You'll laugh and laugh while they awkwardly dance and protest that of course they are from Russia to the unbelieving women.

 

This leads the women to retaliate, just like in one of those kids' comedy movies about summer camp. You'll be wowed by the physical stunts, notably the falling and leaping of Dalton Davis (Longaville).

 

The cast is strong, especially Obehi Janice (Rosaline), who seems to effortlessly communicate at two levels simultaneously. First, there is what she is saying in the moment, but then there is the arc of the scene. You're never confused about where is going with what she is saying. You'll know she is silly, teasing, or angry, despite the archaic language.

 

Most of the play's comedy comes from the actors hilariously swooning from love. Remo Airaldi steals the show as the Spanish Don Armando, with a hilarious accent, drawing a parallel to love's emotion affects by behaving like a bratty child. Less so was Larry Coen, who is usually my favorite. He plays a fool, even dressed in clown shoes and with a lapel rose, but seemed to play to the audience more than to connect with the rest of the cast.

 

Also disappointing was Justin Blanchard (King of Navarre), who as the king and teacher did not create a different, notable physicality to separate him from his students and subjects. His costuming (Nancy Leary) also did not distinguish him. In fact, all four of the main women wore the same dress. In a play with five love stories, we needed more differentiation to keep track of what was going on. To be fair, in the script, the king and princess don't seem very royal. So perhaps this was a deliberate choice based on a bad decision of Shakespeare, not the production company.

 

Having confessed that I don't understand Shakespearian language, which may already get me stabbed by theatre lovers, let me now make a second confession that may ring true. It's an open secret that not all of Shakespeare's plays are good.

 

The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company didn't write the script, but they did choose the play. Both British and American polls rank Love's Labour's Lost as only #25 on Shakespeare's hit list, from 37 plays that he wrote. That puts it in the bottom third.

 

I get it. To add artistic variety, and to be brave, after 20 years, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which feels limited to Shakespeare, wants to produce something they haven't done before. Making their living on the almost true notion that Shakespeare was the #1 playwright in history, perhaps they want to find the best in every one of his plays. Or perhaps they see it as their duty to educate the laypeople and don't want to "sell out" with just the popular plays. Here is the complete list.

 

Which plays the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has produced over the years, and where polls rank these plays generally (UK /USA) among all of Shakespeare:

 

2016: Love's Labour Lost (25 / 25)

2015: King Lear (12 / 5)

2014: Twelfth Night (6 / 11)

2013: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (24 / 28)

2012: Coriolanus (27 / 26)

2011: All's Well That Ends Well (20 / 24)

2010: Othello (9 / 4)

2009: Comedy of Errors (18 / 17)

2008: As You Like It (13 / 15)

2007: A Midsummer Night's Dream (3 / 3)

2006: The Taming of the Shrew (8 / 12)

2005: Hamlet (4 / 1)

2004: Much Ado About Nothing (7 / 7)

2003: Macbeth (2 / 2)

2002: Henry V (16 / 14)

2001: Twelfth Night (6 / 11)

2000: The Tempest (10 / 9)

1999: Julius Caesar (11 / 6)

1998: As You Like It (13 / 15)

1997: Romeo and Juliet (1 / 8)

1996: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (3 / 3)

 

I think we can all agree that Shakespeare wrote at least 10 classic, great, astounding plays. Maybe 20! But are they all perfect? Do we have to pretend that? I'm sorry to say this summer's script is, according to nationwide and UK polling, generally the least popular with audiences of all the choices the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has made.

 

There are many reasons why audiences may have historically preferred other Shakespeare plays. In Love's Labour Lost, there are five love stories. That is too many, and they are too similar, for any of them to matter to the audience. The characters lack emotional arcs or depth. There seems to be no central character or plot, and the king and princess don't seem different or particularly powerful relative to the other characters. There's not much at stake and thus not much tension. Of course, you don't need tension or depth in a silly comedy, but without spoiling it, I'll just say that the end of the play runs full tilt into an emotional wall that does not fulfill the audience's expectation. 

 

The play is also laden with scenes that have no purpose. There's a play within a play and an elaborate discussion of hunting that seem to go nowhere. Lovers get switched, which is a favorite of Shakespeare, but not in an interesting way. You'll find lines like "The fox, the ape, and the humble-bee, Were still at odds, being but three." that even the tremendously talented Commonwealth Shakespeare Company can't make sensical to a modern audience. Perhaps it refers to the emblems of 15th century British politics, like our donkey and elephant of today in America. But we're not all academics out here in the audience. So I have to say that I found Love's Labour Lost not very accessible and disappointing in its final turn of plot. At 2 hours, 45 minutes with one intermission, the play by the end felt too long. Being free, the show is so well attended that if you are seated far in the back, you may find it hard to connect with the physical comedy that to me is the saving grace of a difficult script.

 

Don't let me be too negative. The cast is excellent and there is a wonderful enchantment to being outdoors at night at a completely free production. You may enjoy Love's Labour Lost, especially if you don't care if you can follow it, but perhaps you should also try a less well known outdoor theatre company this summer. I'm about to write a review of Macbeth by the Hampshire Shakespeare Company in Amherst, and in Chelsea there's the Apollinaire Theatre Company's outdoor Hamlet, which ends this weekend. The Museum of Fine Arts has outdoor Cymbeline coming up, and Double Edge Theatre produces Once a Blue Moon, which I gave 5 stars in my review, and thankfully is not Shakespeare.

 

Is Shakespeare the best playwright of all time? Sure. But to me perhaps the best comedy theatre I have ever seen was The Hound of the Baskervilles at the Central Square Theatre in 2011, which also starred Remo Airaldi.

 

The most popular Shakespeare plays that the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company hasn't produced yet are the Merchant of Venice and Richard III. So let's hope for those for next year, or for a return of a Shakespeare top ten.

 

See www.commshakes.org.