The Quintessence Theatre Group offers their production of Love’s Labor’s Lost (opposite John Ford’s The Broken Heart) in their Love & Longing Repertory. In addition to offering a playful take on the crooked meanderings of love and courtship, their production acts as a love-letter to the play itself – for better or for worse.
Director and set/sound designer Alexander Burns immediately establishes the sunny tone of the production with a simple yet effective stage. The cyclorama at the back, though it occasionally changes color for dramatic entrances, primarily shows the blue skies of a bright, clear day, and the thrust stage is covered in astroturf, suggesting a bucolic setting but also hinting at the athletic shenanigans to come. Four topiaries – one for each of the would-be scholars – sit on the raised dais at the back of the stage, setting up a long fuse of subverted expectations: in Act 4, Scene 3 Berowne and the King closely shroud themselves in the first two bushes, but Longaville panics and freezes in place, pretending to be a statue instead.
Christina Bullard’s costumes achieve a colorful naturalism while still suiting characters’ personalities (albeit with a few missteps with fitting – Rosaline in particular is ill-served). The King and his companions wear their privilege on their sleeves with their preppy dress code of three-piece suits, blazers, and bow-ties, accented with bright colors; even Berowne as the most informal still wears an aqua button-down shirt and red blazer with his khaki shorts and rugby hoodie. The Princess and her retinue, meanwhile, are both more formal and fashionable, striding onto the stage as down a catwalk in stylish modern dresses and admirable heels. Costard’s cut-off plaid shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, and trucker hat immediately position his social and personal identity, as does Don Armado’s black leather caballero outfit (perfectly coordinated with Moth’s matador uniform). Bullard’s creativity shows itself with her work on the costumes for the roles the characters assume within the play. The aesthetic of the Russian habits can best be described as Marxist gangster basketball boy band — Groucho, not Karl — with mighty moustaches, short-shorts, gold jewelry, and jerseys helpfully labelled “RUSSIA” to allay confusion. The costumes for the five Nine Worthies, meanwhile, range from realistic (a metal breastplate and overly revealing pteruges for the decrepit Sir Nathaniel as Alexander, vaguely authentic if sparkly Jewish regalia for Holofernes as Judas Maccabeus) to fantastic (an infant Hercules in lions-head slippers, Pompey the Big astride a costume horse, and Hector in black leather topped by a red feather boa and matching sparkly thong): whichever is more appropriately hilarious.
Apart from a few performances that need a little polish and the accent of Don Armado (Josh Carpenter), which is difficult to understand in some places, the acting is quite good. John Williams makes an affable Berowne, who sneaks his most outrageous statements past under a layer of reason and charm. Dana Kreitz as Rosaline achieves an opposite effect, weaponizing the cutting precision of a high school queen bee and the attitude of a femme fatale. Daniel Miller plays Costard with a comedic enthusiasm that makes it difficult to determine whether the character is a dumb hick, the only sane man in a ridiculous society, or something somewhere between the two. As the Princess of France, Mattie Hawkinson exudes the wit, sophistication, and aura of command of someone who innately yet graciously expects to be the leader of any social circle.
The production’s weak spot is its pacing. Burns calls Love’s Labor’s Lost “a play of ostentatious sophistication with a beauty and wit of language that remains unmatched by any other Shakespeare play”, which perhaps explains his reluctance to trim the text. Every quip, no matter how obscure (or, occasionally, racist), is faithfully rendered at the same deliberate pace, working against the cast’s energy and allowing far too much time for contemplation by those who don’t get the joke. Even the beautifully-composed and -performed madrigals of the play’s closing songs go on for just a bit too long. Combined with blocking that tends to live up to its name and obscure eyelines, the result is an unfortunate exclusion of the audience.
However, there is no denying that Burns’ passion for the play is sincerely conveyed by the cast and crew. The Quintessence Theatre Group’s production is not some dull yet scholarly tribute, but a clever transformation that blends Shakespeare’s wordplay and the actors’ comedic talents with perfectly timed theme music and ABBA dance parties – an inspiration for enthusiastic appreciation in a new generation.