Textual scholars hushed inside the academy still wince at playwright Colley Cibber’s 1699 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which he cut the Bard’s speeches and added gratuitous dialogue of his own. Their critical disgust is understandable. On both stage and screen, it is Shakespeare’s, and not Cibber’s, script that has stood the test of time. But the same cannot be said for the pithy and inaccessible Love’s Labour’s Lost, which presents itself as a problem comedy for many directors.
The script of Love’s Labour’s Lost definitely shows its age, creaking with opaque jokes about literary forms that were growing passé in Shakespeare’s own lifetime. Contemporary theatre companies have been known to provide subtitles during performances so audiences can understand what they are watching.
Nevertheless, when careful presenters handle this abstruse script, its ornate lyricism reveals a delightful story. On one level, Love’s Labour’s Lost parodies intellectuals and idealized medieval love stories, and as Marjorie Garber reminds us in Shakespeare After All, it uses the conceit of the “little academe” to point out man’s tendency to deny natural urges toward love, sex, and pleasure. On another level, the play gently lampoons a group of naïve nobles for deigning to deny life’s earthly pleasures.
During the Texas Shakespeare Festival’s four-week summer repertory, director Tom Whitaker and music director Stephen Lias stage the play’s action involving four sets of aristocratic lovers beneath a raised soundstage, featuring the stunning torch singer Angela Shipley and an engaging three-piece band. By setting Shakespeare’s story in the early 1950s and interspersing the sensual rhythms of familiar tunes, director Whitaker elegantly underscores the misadventures of romantic love enhanced by misdirected letters and masquerades. Accompanied by piano, bass, and percussion, Shipley steamily interprets tunes from the 1930s and 1940s such as “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “I Could Write a Book,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
In essence, the plot of this romantic comedy is quite simple. King Ferdinand of Navarre convinces his three lords, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, to sign a written oath to renounce women and pleasure in favor of three years of study and contemplation. At the outset, Berowne vigorously questions the King’s goal, but he eventually goes along with the plan. The nobles’ high, Platonic ideals are soon undercut by reality, when the Princess of France and her three ladies send word of their need for an audience to conduct official business. Though the ink has barely dried on the king’s oath, he and his men admit the ladies on the grounds outside the king’s palace, so as not to violate the strict terms of their vow. Complementing the romance is Shakespeare’s comic, sexual intrigue featuring lowborn figures such as Costard, a swain; Armado, the braggart and Spaniard; his page, Moth; and the hot-blooded wench, Jaquenetta. Whitaker and his team wisely decide to cut the distracting subplot involving pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel, the Curate.
Love’s Labour’s Lost places great verbal demands on the most talented of classical actors. Texas Shakespeare Festival (TSF) audiences are privileged because the company has a tradition of attracting players with a classical bent and a reverence for Shakespeare’s verse through annual nationwide auditions. Throughout this production, the entire TSF ensemble presents a masterful performance. Purists, enthusiasts, and casual playgoers are assured to hear every word of every verse in this well-directed show.
Actor Andrew Hutcheson’s deep baritone voice imbues the role of the King with a courtly quality that served him equally well in the part of Julius Caesar last season. Matthew Simpson deftly inhabits the role of Berowne, the loquacious skeptic. Reminiscent of the quibbling Signior Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Simpson dances and quips his way into the heart of the formidable Rosaline, wisely and sensually rendered by the poised Heidi Wermuth. While playing Dumaine, J. Hernandez brings impressive subtlety and grace to the role, as does Caroline Crocker in her elegant vision of the Princess of France. In their respective roles of lord Longaville and ladies Maria and Katherine, actors Kevin Barber, Lindsay Hicks, and Kristi Forsch enrich this talented ensemble. Michael Krek is commanding and facile as Boyet, the lord attending the Princess.
Actor Aaron White, who succeeds admirably as Costard, should be commended for never overplaying a difficult comic part. Darrin Murrell fares well as Don Armado, and while Mary Candler cuts a visually stunning figure as the wench Jaquenetta, on a couple of occasions, her sight comedy is slightly overdone.
Costume designer Joel Ebarb’s fifties-era coat and petticoat dresses appear luscious on the four women. Moreover, the ladies’ complement of vintage gloves, pearls, satin pumps, and seamed stockings lend the requisite formal air to scenes involving the nobles. This production is heightened by the dance choreography of Stephen Terrell, particularly in the early scenes of Act Five, as the four reunited couples bask in the glow of the dance floor before Monsieur Marcade arrives and dampens their merriment with news of the French king’s death.
Although the idea of interspersing music between the scenes of an inaccessible Elizabethan comedy might rankle a scholar such as Harold Bloom, TSF’s adaptation most certainly improves the playgoer’s understanding of one of the least audience-friendly plays in Shakespeare’s canon.
The Texas Shakespeare Festival’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost plays through August 1 at the Van Cliburn Auditorium inside the Anne Dean Turk Fine Arts Center on the Kilgore College campus, Hwy. 259 between Oak Dr. and Brook St., Kilgore, TX 75662. Admission is $25; $20 for matinee and Sunday evening shows. Call the Texas Shakespeare Festival ticket office at (903) 983-8601 or visit www.texasshakespeare.com.