Review - Love's Labor's Lost: Bright College Days
Love's Labor's Lost, generally not regarded as a top tier Shakespeare effort, might get performed a lot more frequently if more productions were as fun and frisky as director Karin Coonrod's madcap mounting for The Public Theater's Public Lab series.
The comic setup is a classic one. Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Hoon Lee) makes a vow with his three young lords (Nick Westrate, Keith Eric Chappelle and Jorge Chacon) to give up any pursuits of women for the next three years in order to concentrate on their studies. You know where this is going, don't you? It just so happens that the lovely Princess of France (Renee Elise Goldsberry) is in town, along with her three pretty attendants (Rebecca Brooksher, Samira Wiley and Michelle Beck) and once the boys get a look they're uncontrollably torn between their urges and their vows. While the ladies return their affection, they also find the behavior of the gents to be odd and amusing.
The richly-voiced Lee's Ferdinand is a model of crisp nobility until he gets silly over the princess, played with sharp, sexy intelligence by Goldsberry. Coonrod's staging incorporates all areas of the Public's three-sided Anspacher Theater and nobody takes fuller advantage of it than Westrate. As Berowne, the most verbose of the king's lords, he frequently takes his speeches into the audience, chatting up anyone who happens to be sitting next to an empty chair. (Though his jaunty antics are very funny, let's hope he doesn't have many opportunities to sit in empty chairs as the run continues. All seats are bargain-priced at $15.)
Though the lovers' scenes have their share of rough and tumble clowning, the comic subplot actors also excel in their spirited hijinks; including Steven Skybell and Francis Jue as a scholarly pair whose debates take on a vaudevillian crackle, and Reg E. Cathey as an eccentrically poetic Spanish knight with his heart set on a country lass, played with smoldering aloofness by Stephanie DiMaggio.
Robert Stanton makes for a sturdy straight man foil in his dual roles as a constable and a lord attending to the princess. Wiley also doubles-up, impishly portraying the knight's page.
Oana Botez-Ban's clever costumes seem to set the piece in a boys-only college town of a non-specific 20th Century period, though there are plenty of classical touches. The male lovers sport uniform blazers, high stockings and short pants and their female counterparts, perhaps from a sister school, look sharp in their boots, pantaloons and crisp white tuxedo shirts. John Conklin's simple set design places the action on a large patch of grass (the quad?) with a chart of the solar system chalked on the upstage wall. More than once Coonrod's merry madness reminded me of the Marx Brothers' antics at Huxley College in Horse Feathers.
When we first meet the trio in a tattoo parlor (A symbol of permanence, I suppose.) the bubbly Margie (Nikiya Mathis) is already eight weeks along and is excited for all the expensive baby stuff she's going to get ("You put what you want on a list. Then everyone you invite to your party has to buy things off that list. That's how it's done, I didn't make that up."), but what would really make her happy is if her pals, the very sexually active Talisha (Cherise Boothe) and the sweet, naïve Annie (Angela Lewis), had kids around the same time so that they could all have fun together dressing them in designer fashions and parading them around in the latest strollers. But best of all, they see motherhood as a way of providing the unconditional love they see as missing from their lives. ("Won't need moms no more if we each have tiny little babies made just for us, right?")
Greenidge and director Rebecca Taichman do an excellent job of keeping much of the play very light and funny, showing the carefree exterior these underachievers from poor families exude to cover up their acceptance of a future with little opportunity. (My guest, a Manhattan schoolteacher, vouches for the accuracy of the hip-hop slang dialogue and attitudes portrayed.) The story centers on Annie, played with touching empathy by Lewis, and her relationships with her mother and the boy she tries having sex with.
Malik (J. Mallory-McCree) likes Annie, but won't father her child because he can see a future beyond a community that is so accustomed to settling for compromised happiness, like powered milk that's kept on the shelf like sugar, that they tend to prefer it. Tonya Pinkins is striking as Annie's emotionally damaged mother who sees no escape for her daughter from the negative cycle of life that's been firmly established through generations. There's a bit of a problem in casting Pinkins in that she doesn't look young enough to have given birth to Annie as a teen - a fact that isn't stated until later in the play so the parallel isn't clear from the start - but her firm, understated performance is outstanding.
Also pulling at Annie's emotions are the charismatic tattoo artist, Antwoine (LeRoy McClain) and a new friend, overweight loner Keera (Adrienne C. Moore) who has delusions of a perfect family life and being part of a supportive church community.
Taichman, set designer Mimi LienMimi LienMimi Lien and lighting designer Justin Townsend make the most of Playwrights Horizons' intimate Peter Jay Sharp TheatPeterPeter Jay Sharp Theater, utilizing just an imposing wall and limited furnishings. Toni-Leslie JamesToni=Leslie James' costumes do a fine job of character-defining, as does sound designer Andre Pluess' collection of varying cell phone rings and signals.