By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
The Beatles didn’t start with “Abbey Road.” Their first album, “Please, Please Me,” was fun and lighthearted, with hits like the title track and “Love Me Do.”
Likewise, Shakespeare didn’t start with “Hamlet” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Before those masterworks, there was “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” either a relatively early or a very early play – the scholarly assessment varies – by the Bard. More than most of Shakespeare’s comedies, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is full of witty repartee and fun that strays into silliness toward its unsatisfying ending.
Director Vivienne Benesch has placed the Folger Theatre production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” in the early 1930s, an inspired decision that allows us to view Shakespeare’s characters and hear his language in a different light. She chose that era because the Folger Shakespeare Library opened in 1932.
Benesch’s set, a library of dark wood with a large stained-glass window above, mirrors the actual library at the Folger. Along with the play itself, there’s an exhibit open to playgoers that details the museum’s much-heralded opening, with photos of dignitaries in attendance, including President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover. You can also peek into the actual library – playgoers are not allowed entry – and see the setting that informed the set.
The play begins in the library, with big band music playing on a phonograph, as Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Joshua David Robinson) talks with Berowne (played with great energy by Zachary Fine), Longaville (Matt Dallal) and Dumaine (Jack Schmitt). The king is asking the three young men to sign a pledge to live a scholarly life of fasting, little sleep and, worst of all, no women for three long years.
While Longaville and Dumaine sign eagerly on the dotted line, Fine as Berowne – who has the looks and mannerisms of a young Rodney Dangerfield – isn’t so sure, especially the no-women part. He reluctantly signs the pledge, which is immediately put to the test by the arrival of the Princess of France (Amelia Pedlow) and her three ladies-in-waiting, Rosaline (Kelsey Rainwater), Katherine (Chani Werely) and Maria (Yesenia Iglesias).
The wooing is in the form of verbal jousting, usually in rhyme, as this play has more lines rhymed than any other by Shakespeare. There’s a fifth love pair, a hot romance between the nerdy Nathaniel (Susan Rome) and Holofernes, played fantastically by Folger stalwart Louis Butelli.
A sixth pairing is initially a love triangle between the floozy Jaquenetta (Tonya Beckman), the buffoonish Costard (Edmund Lewis) and Don Armado (Eric Hissom). Hissom, most recently seen on Folger’s stage in “The Winter’s Tale,” is funny and winsome in his role as the Spanish braggard and steals every scene he’s in.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” is an appropriate play for the #MeToo era, as the female love interests definitely get the better of their male suitors throughout. And while the play’s unusual ending – courtesy of the Bard, not the Folger – may not leave audiences enthralled, this is a well-staged and well-acted production.
The creative team includes scenic design by Helen Hayes Award-winner Lee Savage, costume design by Tracy Christensen and lighting design by three-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Colin
K. Bills. Sound and original music by Lindsay Jones. Janet Alexander Griffin is in charge of artistic production at the Folger.
The author is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times.