In this Great Lakes Theater production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a play filled with heightened language and topical references, it’s pretty easy for many details of the story to get lost. To remedy that, director Tyne Rafaeli has turned the whole thing into a fairly non-stop game of Chutes and Ladders. And much of it is diverting while not exactly serving the play’s story and theme.
Upon entering the theater, one is confronted with a large library, the towering shelves packed with books and sitting on a patch of Astroturf. The clever scenic design by Kristen Robinson nicely marries the two environments and moods of the play: the strict, by-the-book asceticism of the scholar and the freedom of nature and human impulse.
And it all progresses promisingly as four young men— Ferdinand, King of Navarre and his three attendants—join in a pact to study together for three years and decline the company of females. Of course, that oath lasts as long as it takes the women to show up, in the person of the Princess of France and her lovely retinue. Soon enough, the men are in full rut and eager to chuck the books aside.
This they do with relish, as Rafaeli has them climbing up and sliding down ladders and the bookshelves themselves, with books shoved out and falling to the floor—in the boys’ urgency to get close to one of the women.
Meanwhile the clown Costard (an appealing Juan Rivera Lebron) has been arrested for dallying with a dairy maid named Jaquenetta (an amusingly dour Maggie Kettering), so Constable Anthony Dull puts Costard in the custody of a loud-mouthed Spanish knight, Don Armando, who already has a secret passion for Jaquenetta himself. Why? Because it’s funny and Shakespeare is fishing for laughs, not a rational plot.
Obviously, many complications ensue as the four women tease the men, who have each been captivated by different gals in the Princess’s posse. Towards the end, surprises come fast and furious as the men dress as Russians to court the ladies (apparently a surefire turn-on back in the day), then the ladies disguise themselves to fool the randy dudes, then the simple folk put on a pageant (of course!), and then sobering news is delivered that the King of France is dead. So the Princess and her gals decide to book, telling the guys they should abstain from worldly pleasures for a year and then they’ll come back and leap into their arms.
In this production, only the broad outlines of the story are clearly presented since calisthenics take over the stage. With Rafaeli’s “Laff Factory” meets Benny Hill style of direction, it is devilishly hard to keep track of old Will’s somewhat tortured script.
The actors, who no doubt will be in excellent physical shape after this run, keep up as best they can. In the leading roles, Jonathan Dyrud as the King and Erin Partin as the Princess affect a royal presence while revealing their hidden lust. And Christopher Tocco and Laura Welsh Berg are entirely watchable as their key attendants.
But David Anthony Smith as Don Armando is never able to establish a comical chemistry with Robyn Kerr as Moth, his page boy. And their accents accents don’t help since they are often hard to decipher. Dougfred Miller and M.A. Taylor contribute some chuckles as, respectively, the schoolmaster Holofernes and his wingman Nathaniel. And in a pleasant switch, Tom Ford beautifully underplays his role as Constable Dull and winds up being the funniest one on stage. Go figure.
If you like a lot of activity and some laughs, this version of LLL may feel just right. But don’t expect to be bowled over by the story, since it’s mostly missing in action.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Through April 24 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.
You’d think that a play that’s all about love would be fairly simple. But when it comes to Shakespeare, nothing is as simple as you might think, or might want.