Once again, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has returned with their “Extreme Shakespeare” production. The actors arrive with their lines learned, commandeer one of the sets, raid the PSF’s closets for costumes and props, and in just under a week work out the direction of the play themselves — just as theater companies did in the days of Shakespeare. This year they offer Love’s Labour’s Lost, emerging from these challenges with a fantastic and funny production.
Scenic designer Steve TenEyck’s majestic set from Julius Caesar is not the intuitive choice for the light-hearted production, but in addition to a certain neoclassical academic je ne sais quoi it also soon proves well-suited for the barrage of fourth-wall breaking jokes. Besides general acknowledgments about the theatrical space’s existence (when Ferdinand cries, “They'll mock us now downright!” Berowne helpfully corrects him with “Down left!”) the cast also points out the set’s minimalist aesthetic, as when Ferdinand notes “I have been closely shrouded in this… bush…” with a dubious glance at the theater’s curtains. The cast gets a lot of mileage out of the automated movable dais, whether to add instant gravitas to their speeches (no matter how ridiculous) or simply to provoke more laughs as they ride it across the stage with varying levels of enthusiasm.
The costuming has a vague ’60s feel, which works out well as the main characters’ conflicts resonate with the echoes of the clash between old boys’ clubs and Women’s Lib. The princess and her ladies look smart in colorful dresses, scarves, vintage sunglasses, and gloves. The king and his men, meanwhile, range from very to unbearably preppy: Longaville does not wear socks with his suit; the king pairs a navy sportcoat with a pink buttondown and white pants; Berowne wears boat shoes, white bermuda shorts, and both a sweater vest and a cardigan. Holofernes’ and Nathaniel’s costumes would be impressively accurate even without the production’s limitations; the former wears a tweedy-looking suit (with a beltline somewhere in the vicinity of the armpits) under an academic robe and mortarboard, while the latter sports a full curate’s outfit — though without shoes. However, it is Don Adriano de Armado who makes the biggest impression: his combat boots, maroon beret, dog tags, fingerless motorcycle gloves, sweeping cream long coat, baggy black drop-crotch trousers, and orchid-colored tank top provide a perfect mix of military chic, fashion consciousness, and utter inexplicability.
The cast is uniformly excellent and offers what seems like the entire range of possible comedic performances. As the Princess of France, Marnie Schulenberg mixes poise with playfulness, obviously taking a break from her normal dutifulness to indulge the sheer absurdity of their situation. In contrast, Mattie Hawkinson’s Rosaline has a distinctly sharp edge to her wit: though she never goes quite too far, her companions’ warnings to avoid savaging anyone seem fully earned. Zach Robidas gives Berowne a similar mean streak, though it is clear he rarely tries to be too damaging. By making it clear that both characters naturally default to sarcasm and mockery, Hawkinson and Robidas increase the impact of the revelations in Act 5: Berowne’s confession is as heartfelt as Rosaline’s shock at his sincerity.
With an impressively thick accent, Anthony Lawton gives Don Adriano de Armado a butch edge to his foppishness. He balances Armado’s considerable ridiculousness with a genuine care for others, whether it is for his lower class love Jacquenetta (a vivacious Beth Egan), his “tender juvenal” Moth (a scrappy Peter Danelski), or the audience members whom he conscientiously reassures that the line “no evil angel but(t) love” is not a dirty joke. (Nor is “Cupid’s butt shaft.”) The master of audience asides and ad libs, however, is Christopher Patrick Mullen’s Costard. Mullen’s dry and low-key delivery provides the perfect counterbalance to his tendency to go off-script in practically every scene, including the customary pre-show plea to check out the PSF’s other shows and to turn off cell phones. Such is the caliber of the cast that even minor roles are a delight, and this is nowhere as evident as in Justin Ariola’s performance as Constable Dull. Merely by sitting on a corner of the stage with a pipe and crossword puzzle, Ariola conveys an unflappable steadiness could as easily come from a calm practicality as from genuine dullness; the result is surprisingly endearing, which makes Dull’s enthusiastic (for him) metaphorical appearance as Cupid — complete with bow, fairy wings, and pink silk toga — even more charming.
The cast takes full advantage of the play’s focus on words and how people say them and delivers a whole array of pronunciation jokes. In addition to mocking Don Armado’s grandly accented vocabulary, the Navarrans also deliver some linguistic contortions themselves: “love” is frequently given its Shakespearean pronunciation for no particular reason, and as “Russians” (whose dialects include Schwarzenegger and Robot) the King and his friends deliver the impressive request for piss and genital whiz-itation (“peace and gentle visitation”). If there is any complaint, it is that the actors’ comedic accents are occasionally too thick to catch all the jokes they’re delivering.
With so many great comic performances, it is unsurprising that very few scenes have been cut, and in fact the actors actually add some material. Cutaway gags like the king and company’s group selfie after their academic cap toss at the very beginning or Cupid’s appearances throughout the play keep the laughs constant. There are also frequent musical breaks, whether inspired by the text (like Holofernes’ Ode to a Pricket, warbled to the tune of “Greensleeves”) or not (Armado and Moth’s bilingual duet of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”). Though certainly full, the deliberate pace — and quality of the humor — largely keeps the production from feeling overstuffed.
However, it is the cast’s knowledge of when not to be funny that ultimately shows their mastery of the form. After the delivery of the news of the death of the Princess’s father, the tone makes a definite shift to sad, though not somber: an appropriate elegy for the romances cut off just when all parties realized they were in earnest. The ending is nicely bittersweet as the lovers farewell each other over a soft rendition of the play’s closing song — just in time for one last gentle joke, as Don Armado helpfully points out the theater’s exits with “You that way; we this way.” Just as the characters have their reunion to look forward to, the cast of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost reminds us that their talent, humor, and creativity will also have a chance to return in a year’s time.