BWW Review: Necessity and Realism Prevail Along with Enchantment in LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
In the next-to-last line of Love's Labour's Lost, currently being revived by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in the lovely setting of the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, a foolish character speaks truth: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo." In other words, it's hard to embrace clear-eyed wisdom after one has luxuriated in the poetry of love. The transition is necessary, but it can be jarring. It is the genius of Love's Labour's Lost to move from one to the other with extraordinary grace. Indeed, without that shift, audiences might eventually perish from the surfeit of sugar on offer in the play: all the comedy and romance that makes up the first 90% of the text.
Not that that 90% lacks substance. It may be silly, but it is a learned, thought-through silliness, much of it devoted to opposing two appealing but ultimately unsatisfying traditions: monasticism and courtly love. The hero, Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Jonathan Jacobs), and three of his male courtiers, Berowne (Jose Guzman), Longaville (JC Payne) and Dumain (Alexander Kafarakis), begin the play with an embrace of monastic devotion to "study," pledging mutually to abjure the company of women for three years while they pursue it. What exactly they are about to study Shakespeare does not even bother to specify, probably because the effort to study that way is absurd, though it chimes well with various conventions of European culture at the time. (Think the lives of certain monks, misogynistic attitudes well-typified in the dialogue of certain of Chaucer's pilgrims and the writings of St. Augustine, and for that matter the Boccaccian and Platonic notion of elevated dialogue conducted in sequestration by members of the elite.) It is absurd because, as Berowne gloomily foresees: "Necessity will make us all forsworn / Three thousand times within this three year's space." And by "necessity" we can be sure he means not simply the logistical necessity of dealing with women but what we might call Jurassic Park Necessity: Life finds a way. As Shakespeare himself wrote in a similar context: "The world must be peopled." And for peopling, you need relations between the sexes.
Both logistical and Jurassic Park necessity instantly present themselves in the form of the Princess of France (Lauren Davis), who has business with the King that must be conducted face-to-face (something incomprehensible about reimbursement of funds and possession of Aquitaine). With her come three ladies in waiting: Rosaline (Elana Michelle), Maria (Micaela Mannix) and Katherine (Hilary Morrow), each of whom already happens (by sheerest coincidence, of course) to be smitten with one of the King's three companions. Obviously, the sequestration of the four noble alleged students will not end well. The prompt disintegration of the barriers they have erected around themselves takes the form of individual covert defections conducted in compliance with one of the prime conventions of courtly love: sending of epistolary love poetry. The covert part of it does not all go according to plan, however, leading to a mutual unmasking of the defections among the "students." When they have all gotten over their chagrin, they plan joint visits to the encampment of the French ladies. For various reasons, the courtly love rituals come across nearly as absurdly as those attending the abortive attempt to live the monastic life.
As is customary in Shakespeare's plays, there is an elaborate low comedy world parallel to the world of the highborn lovers, in which there are various distorted echoes or contradictions of what is happening in the world of their betters. The central figure in this world is Don Armado, played by Michael Boynton with an over-the-top Spanish accent, handlebar moustache, twirling rapier and indefatigable self-esteem, attended by his put-upon page Moth (Catherine Anne Gilbert). Other denizens of this world include (but are not limited to) a swain named Costard (Danny Beason) who goes around with one overall strap perpetually unbuttoned and a similarly slack-jawed approach to life, Armado's and apparently also Costard's love interest, dairy-maid Jaquenetta (Emily Karol), and a pair of pedants: curate Sir Nathaniel (Quincy Vicks) and schoolmaster Holofernes (who, despite the male name is played, apparently as a schoolmarm, by Karen V. Lawrence). Also worthy of mention in this connection, though he inhabits the highborn world, is Boyet, a noble attending the French ladies. As Gregory Michael Atkin portrays him, Boyet is nothing like the "elderly lord" noted in the Dramatis Personae of my Signet Classic edition, but rather a much younger and supremely campy observer of the follies of the straight young ladies he advises with a kind of jaundiced enthusiasm. There is absolutely nothing I can see in the text which suggests the character may be gay, but the choice works well; among other things, it provides some context for his arch and theatrical reactions to the lovers, legitimating for the audience a different perspective.
I have mentioned some, not even all, of these parallel comic characters not so much to explore how they are used, though one could write a book about that (and some scholar doubtless has), but to emphasize what a rich comic world Shakespeare has embedded his principal characters in. There is something and someone to laugh at nearly every moment.
This rendering has also increased the mirth by going mostly Roaring Twenties in setting and costume. Scholars tell us that Shakespeare was counting on his audience understanding certain then-topical references to what was going on in France and Navarre, but needless to say, that frame of reference is irretrievable now. The substitution of boaters, frocks, and two-toned spectator shoes for doublets and hose works well, as does the easy integration of early 20th-century Great American Songbook music into the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's traditional pre-show and intermission musical performances, and also into the show itself. Get there in time to catch the first pre-show number, In the Good Old Summertime, sung by the performers who will be the King and his comrades, all in period costume in a tight barbershop quartet (pictured above), and get back from your intermission break in time to catch their female counterparts providing a just-as-tightly-arranged By the Light of the Silvery Moon. A tip of the skimmer to costume designer Heather C. Jackson for her outfits for both ensembles, as well as some hilarious Russian outfits (you'll find out why when you go).
Thus far I have been addressing only the comic richness of the show. There is another element, however. My companion noted it to me as we were leaving: the initially somewhat inexplicable coldness of the ladies, especially the Princess, that he only came to grasp in the later going. The ladies of the French court are certainly Ready to Play and flirt with the Navarrans. But they never seem fully on board with the purpose of the men's advances, which is of course marriage. Something happens at the end to Take That question off the table for at least a year, and at that point the Princess states what would in real life have been plain to all concerned, that the courtship we have seen is "a time ... too short to make a world-without-end bargain in." Everyone needs to reset while the Frenchwomen go home to take care of a sudden demand on their time and attention, leaving behind a conditional promise to return, the condition being, generally speaking, that the men clean up their acts in various ways. We are in Mercury time now, not Apollo time any more. And in Mercury time, marriage is a serious business worthy of serious preparation.
There are those who might feel this is discordant, and some kind of loss of comic momentum. To me, though, it works better, at least in this play, than the more conventionally Shakespearean multiple marriages conducted on the spot would have been. In Shakespeare's other comedies where that sort of thing occurs, we've had the opportunity to observe the couples going through some things together; their infatuations each have a basis. The Navarran suitors, by contrast, have done very little other than dance with the Frenchwomen, send them love tokens, and flirt with them a bit. Before we as an audience are going to buy fully into the notion of these characters all getting married, we (like the Frenchwomen themselves) would want to see them get better acquainted.
It's not always possible for a reviewer to disentangle the directorial contribution from those of the performers and other creative spirits, but here (in part because of her program notes) it's possible to discern pretty clearly the hand of director Erin Bone Steel. This highly variegated show nonetheless reflects a single vision, and it is one, I think, well-honed to bring out the best of the play: the limits that realism, especially the realism of women, should and can impose on either of the two more historically male ideals, monastic living or courtly love, that might impede more fruitful relationships between men and women.
As always when reviewing Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performances at the Ruins, it is well also to mention the family-friendly pleasures of spending a summer night watching a play in the open air, with access to picnic tables (you can bring your own food or buy snacks there), and some ability to spread blankets, or to rely on management-supplied seating. It's a perfect way to introduce kids to the riches of Shakespeare.
Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare, directed by Erin Bone Steel, at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, free shuttle service in the Howard County Circuit Court parking lot, behind 8360 Court Avenue, Ellicott City, MD 21043, through July 28. Tickets for adults $19-$46; tickets free to 18 and under, 410-244-8570 and www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com . Suitable for all ages.
Photo credit: Brandon W. Vernon.