I had the memorable experience of attending the Great Lakes Theater production of Love's Labour’s Lost on Shakespeare's birthday in this 400th anniversary year of his death. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, this production underscores the contrast between men and women over sex and love in the Shakespearean arena. While the text alludes to the king and his courtiers’ vow to renounce women to become more honorable men, Rafaeli’s direction takes the play in a different course by making the vow into a game that young men might play. This approach allows them to jubilantly compare their relative “strength” against the opposite sex.
In harmony with the King of Navarre’s speech “Our court shall be a little Academe, Still and contemplative in living art,” Rafaeli sets the play in a university library (designed by Kristen Robinson), with monumental bookshelves with a big arch entry in the middle and two smaller entries on the sides. On the top panels of the shelves are the names of the Nine Worthies, historical and legendary figures who are known for their valor, knowledge, and military and political skills. The additional names of two characters in the play — Holofernes, the schoolmaster (Dougfred Miller) and Nathaniel, the curator (M.A. Taylor) — serve as a comical but important bridge between the worthies and the play. Two sliding ladders open a vertical dimension in the setting as they allow the performers to climb up and down the bookcases.
The collegiate setting for the “academe” is reflected in the costumes as well (designed by Andrea Hood). Ferdinand, the King of Navarre (Jonathan Dyrud), Berowne (Christopher Tocco), Longaville (Jeb Burris), and Dumaine (Nick Steen) all wear tweed jackets with a crescent as a school badge so they look like British schoolboys.
The noble men and women’s world contrasts with the world of subplot characters: Holofernes and Nathaniel as the epitome of schoolmasters and clerics; the Spanish nobleman Don Ariano de Armado (David Anthony Smith); his page Moth (Robyn Kerr); Jaquenetta the maid (Maggie Kettering); Costard the prisoner (Juan River Lebron); and the constable Anthony Dull (Tom Ford). The “central” character in the sub-plot is Costard, in a khaki-colored overall, construction workers’ gloves, and cap, Lebron’s Costard tricks the lords, though often clumsily. Ford's Constable Dull, a deadpan, reminds me of Mr. Yunioshi as portrayed by Mickey Rooney in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. His nonchalant presence acts as a counterpoint to the hyperactive Costard. “The Play of the Nine Worthies”, performed by these characters for the noble men and women, mocks the ancient hero Pompey. Costard’s parody of Pompey’s prowess may suggest how Shakespeare saw heroes in both history and among his contemporaries.
Rafaeli’s direction emphasizes the power of the women to ruin the young courtiers’ plans to remain celibate. The women build — literally and figuratively — a fort to protect their virtue. They are not objects of the masculine desire, nor threats to masculine purity. Princess of France (Erin Partin) and her three ladies-in-waiting (Laura Welsh Berg, Christine Weber, and Heather Thiry) challenge the men with their impeccable fashion, while the men's appearance becomes disheveled.
The women’s command of the situation is underscored by the costuming by Hood. They are first seen in long coats and berets. Their militant entrance to upbeat music (composed by Josh Schmidt) captivates the audience more so than the presence of the four noblemen in the first scene; throughout the performance the women’s costumes remain colorful, conspicuous, and mesmerizing. Their embroidered coats, bare feet, and rifles in Act IV, Scene 1 illuminate their role as “hunters.” Although the women are also hungry for sex, they exercise control over men, as well as fashion and decorum, and stand in clear contrast to the King and his lords who become frantic and confused.
The state of the four young men’s minds is demonstrated in the form of physical theatre. When the King of Navarre and his three lords make entrances to the stage, they often use openings in the shelves and, as they knock books to the floor, physicalize the distracting influence of their sexual appetite and frustration. During the courting scene (with a mistaken identity routine) after the four men find their right partners, both men and women chase each other like children in a playground.
In the midst of the havoc created by these noble “children in the playground,” Rafaeli reminds the audience that these people are also at the mercy of political conditions. The sudden news of the death of the King of France signaled by a change of lighting (Rick Martin, lighting designer), suggests the dark reality of international politics that will separate these lovers.
The play ends with a lap song performed by Holofernes and Nathaniel sitting in two chairs left behind in the disordered library. This finale suggests the end of the academic year and a return of peace to this academic kingdom, yet foreshadowing the turmoil to be caused again by these four students in the fall.