Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through March 26
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” may be the least romantic of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, at least for contemporary audiences.
A feast of flowery language, fancy rhetoric, and fertile wit spouted in the name of love, it is so dense and verbose that trying to follow the verbal twists and turns can interfere with our enjoyment of the proceedings. It’s also easy to forget that the Bard was satirizing this excess, at least partly, and suggesting that plain speaking suited the subject better—a point that’s made clearly at the end when tragedy dispels all the merriment. On top of this, the many topical allusions that undoubtedly delighted Elizabethans are lost on all but the most erudite of us.
The play has no plot to speak of, so the typical romantic complications and separations are mostly missing, and anyway, Jack does not get Jill in the end. There’s what we would consider a racist streak in the lampooning of the Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado. And the opening premise is decidedly sexist, even if women have the upper hand in modern interpretations from the moment they appear.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production, directed by Marti Maraden, has a playful spirit and plenty of funny business but doesn’t overcome LLL’s obstacles enough to fully engage us. Despite strong acting all around, I found myself slightly distracted from the outset, when the young Ferdinand, King of Navarre (John Tufts), enlists his three best friends to dedicate themselves to study for three years and abjure all worldly pleasures including three meals a day, a good night’s sleep and, most of all, the presence of women, as if learning were only the domain of men. Two of the lords, Longaville (Madison Niederhauser) and Dumaine (Julian Foster), were barely distinguishable from each other, and Berowne (Nate Burger) stood out mostly because he objected to swearing to a scheme that was so contrary to nature.
The king’s naïve plan is undone almost immediately by the arrival of the Princess of France (Jennie Greenberry) on state business, along with a trio of her ladies, Maria (Jennifer Latimore), Katherine (understudy Leryn Turlington on opening night), and Rosaline (Laura Rook). The men fall in love at first sight and foreswear their vows of abstinence, instead indulging in writing stilted sonnets and wooing the ladies in silly disguises. But the Princess and her women, though charmed, mock their suitors in various ways, such as wearing masks and exchanging the jewelry tokens they were given, so the men will court the wrong ones. Boyet (James Newcomb), a lord in the Princess’ court, spices things up with lots of sexual double entendres. These tricks and tropes are common in Shakespeare’s comedies, but Maraden puts amusing spins on them, especially an interlude with King and his men dressed up as Russians and the long scene where they discover, one by one, that they’ve broken their oaths and have been trying to hide this from each other.
Berowne gets the most attention in all this—including his sparring with Rosaline (like Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”)–and his undoing is a poem he writes and entrusts to rustic clown Costard (Alex Goodrich) to deliver to Rosaline. The lynch pin in the comic subplots, he mistakenly gives it instead to the unschooled dairy maid Jaquenetta (Maggie Portman), and Don Adriano’s (Allen Gilmore) malaprop-laden love letter intended for her goes instead to the high-born lady.
While Goodrich and Gilmore milk their roles for humor, much of the mirth comes from Don Adriano’s interaction with his page, Moth, winningly played by high-school freshman Aaron Lamm (who looks about nine). The other country characters, who convene to put on a pageant of the Nine Worthies for the royals, are Sir Nathaniel, a curate (Greg Vinkler), and Holofernes, a schoolmaster (David Lively). Their antics, too, rely on wordplay, but it becomes labored, and I admit to a low tolerance for it.
The tone turns darker in the last scene, which brings a message to the Princess that her father has died and she now is the queen—and a return to reality for everyone. It also sounds the serious message about the power of language to both help and hurt, and the necessity and value of saying what you mean. The shift is difficult to navigate, but Greenberry’s Princess brings the some real depth and nuance to her role.
The most romantic thing about this LLL is the design, even if it is an homage to the 18th-century “Age of Reason.” Kevin Depinet’s lush, slightly autumnal park setting, inspired by French painter Jean-Honoré-Fragonard and softly lit by Greg Hofmann, features a handsome balustrade and a huge tree with surrealistically detached limbs and falling leaves. Christina Poddubiuk’s costumes are elaborate and sumptuous, particularly for the court ladies (though they’re not the extremely wide mantuas a person couldn’t even sit down in). Richard Jarvie’s wigs and makeup. Keith Thomas’ music, and Matt Raftery’s choreography round out the picture.
LLL has been called one of the 101 greatest plays of all time, but I can’t agree. Chicago Shakespeare Theater has only produced it twice in 30 years, and the last time was in 2002. Once every 15 years (or so) seems about right.