Shakespeare on the Green brings the comedy “Love’s Labour’s Lost” to the Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre for their 27th season. It is an absurd comedy that should inspire love, lust, longing and laughter. The incredibly difficult premise is this: King of Navarre (Benjamin Hart) decides he is going to devote the next three years of his life to academic study. Now he isn’t enrolling in school—no. He is going into seclusion and swearing off contact with women, while still trying to govern a country.
Yeah, seems like a plan doomed for failure, doesn’t it? Misery loves company, and royalty have the ultimate peer pressure at their hands, so he pressures three friends into this absurd scheme: Biron (Jason Corder), Longaville (Jack Cannon), and Dumain (Jeremy Weir). The plan immediately hits a snag when the Princess of France (Bailey Watkins) arrives to try negotiating the latest in the chapter of “Who owns the Aquitaine?” Clearly, the King has to meet with the Princess—that’s what their jobs are. Princesses do not travel alone and unescorted. Her ladies are Rosaline (Savannah Dougherty), Maria (Georgia Cole), and Katherine (Amber Heck). So, three ladies, three lords … you can guess what happens next, right?
The subplot involves an illiterate servant, Costard (Zeb Mims), who misdelivers letters because he can’t read who they are addressed to, and frankly, it’s not really a Shakespeare comedy if there isn’t a mix up of messages somewhere. Costard is entangled with Jaquenetta (Dorothy Reynolds) and Don Armado (Murphy Turner), a sort of court hanger-on from Spain. There are a couple of “ringers” in the show, too, and Murphy Turner is one of them. His Don Armado is like a less suave version of Mandy Patkin in “The Princess Bride.” Remove everything that makes Inigo real and just leave in all the funny bits. In his defense, he and Costard (another ringer) really do get some of the best lines in the show. But it is no news flash that Shakespeare can write good jokes.
But back to the King, Princess and their situation. The Princess and her ladies put Boyet (Will Ross), her Chamberlin, through his paces, making him act as their go-between with the boys. Ross gets one of my favorite speeches as Boyet, wherein he teases his sovereign and the ladies about the boys.
Composed of 16 couplets, it lets the actor fall into just enough rhythm and rhyme to make the princesses laugh, so he might not find himself in the dog house for overstepping his bounds. But Ross’ Boyet has his hands full trying to play cupid with this group. With the exception of Biron, the King and his friends are basically shy, awkward teenage boys who still don’t know how to talk to girls.
Seeing the two groups together is kind of like watching a middle-school dance, both clustered together on opposite sides. At first they use a messenger (Boyet), but eventually the most important girl (the Princess) decides to take matters into her own hands and begins to direct the situation. And thank heavens—because, frankly, if we had to wait on the King to get his act together, we would all be sitting at Greenfield Lake wondering what the hell is wrong with him. I mean he has a kingdom, an education, a job, and a fortune—not to mention Benjamin Hart is incredibly handsome! All he has to do is flash a beautiful smile and look deeply into her eyes, and she would melt. Go talk to the girl, damn it!
Corder’s Biron is the only one who seems to have a clue how to go about this. He is a delight to watch onstage as the King’s smarter, more confidant friend. He ventures without fear into the land of the giggling, teasing and terrifying young women. Taken as a whole, they are sort of like the smarter, less malicious version of the popular girls from high school. It is easy to see how they could be intimidating—and they are all pretty. But, to be honest, the admiration the boys profess seems to be of a chivalric nature: The girls are on pedestals. They are idolized. I wouldn’t say that sexual desire or longing pulses from the stage at any moment. It is a much more innocent portrayal of young attraction than steamy, physical desire—again, like a school dance but with loftier aims and goals. It is really Corder who is driving this bus and thank heavens for him—I do believe his energy and his action and his efforts. The others are still so restrained it is hard to believe that the boys might be throwing away a vow they have taken because they are driven mad by desire for these beautiful girls.
There are a lot of possibilities for staging the show that can or could explore different aspect of what constitutes love, desire, duty or honor. Right now, all of these topics are hotly contested ideas in our state and national conversations. Essentially the men swearing off sex is the reverse of Lysistrata, where women forbid men any conjugal visits until peace is accomplished. At a time when we are talking about control of women’s bodies and sexuality, what is the underlying message of a show where men swear to abstain instead of continuing to have all the privileges without any of the ramifications—which is so often the narrative?
Costumer Amber Heck has taken a modern dress approach to the story. The ladies all look beautiful and the lords presentable in a sort of pseudo-frat boy way. While the Capri pants the Lords are wearing are an eye-catching and curious choice, I wonder if it’s for added comedic effect. That does seem to be the goal of director Zeb Mims (who also plays Costard) and assistant director Trevor Tackett (Corder’s understudy). But I found myself looking at the stage and hearing Lou Criscuolo’s voice: “This show needs more sight gags.” Mims and Turner’s fight scene is the highlight of energy, action and comedy. Laughing and leaning forward in the seat is inevitable.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” is a fun evening of Shakespeare on the Green, and the setting is actually perfect for the show: The King refuses to admit the Princess and her return to the castle (as per his vows) and instead lodges them in the field outside the castle, where much of the action takes place. The set on stage utilizes wooden cubes and trellises with vines on flats to provide the necessary locations to for hiding and “accidentally” overhearing that are essential to Shakespeare’s plots. That is really more for plot necessity; the real ambiance is created by the beautiful setting of Greenfield Lake. When the Princess complains she has been lodged in a field, she was accompanied by a chorus of angry geese.
It did rather underscore her point quite well.
What Mims and Tackett have put together is a straightforward telling of the story. Theatre is a versatile artform that can combine entertainment, education, enlightenment, protest and high art. This production is firmly in the camp of entertainment. “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is a script without a really satisfying resolution, but filled with word play and double entendre.