The Old Globe’s got a charmer on its outdoor stage. Director Kathleen Marshall, scenic designer John Lee Beatty, Peter Golub’s original music, and a uniformly fine cast turn Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost into a Greenbelt of Babel.
In Shakespeare’s time, Navarre was a small kingdom high in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. So small, apparently, that young King Ferdinand can abandon his duties for the next 36 months. Ferdinand and three “fellow scholars” want to found a school akin to Plato’s famous academy. They’ll study so hard they’ll become renowned for their learning and make Navarre “the wonder of the world.”
Okay, something’s wrong with this picture. Shouldn’t study be an end in itself? And accolades an afterthought? Isn’t the king putting the report card before the reading list?
Second problem: the retreat has rules more severe than St. Benedict’s: fast one day a week; just one meal per day; sleep only three hours a night; stay far from women. If one comes within a mile of the court, she’ll lose her tongue. The penalty’s just to frighten women away, says a giggling Longaville. But still...
Berowne, a young lord, reacts: “These are barren tasks, too hard to keep, not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.” Plus, the Princess of France fast approaches. She and her retinue will put all oaths to the test. At first, Berowne sounds like the only male mature enough to greet them. Not so. In the bard’s early comedy, even Berowne’s got a lot to learn. You could subtitle the play, the “Taming of the Adolescents.”
By the time he wrote Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare already paid his dues to tragedy (the gory Titus Andronicus), to comedy (the misogynistic Taming of the Shrew), and to history (the Henry VI cycle). Now the poet wants to strut his stuff: not only to unleash his abilities but also to shoot critical carps at literary poseurs.
When finally alone, one of the first things Juliet tells Romeo: cut the purple poeticizing and speak from the heart. It’s as if Juliet studied under the Princess of France. She and her retinue would gladly be woo’d, but not by randy hypocrites who couch their lusts in “taffeta phrases” and “silken terms precise” — and who may not know what real love is.
The royal park at Navarre becomes not the King’s monkish academe, but the Princess of Navarre’s School of Authentic Expression. The curriculum, says a dismayed Berowne, is “too long for a play.” And not everyone, as the title suggests, may graduate.
The “students,” it turns out, are a gaggle of pseudo-literati: Armado, the syrupy stylist; Holofernes, the pedant mired in a linguistic maze; hapless Nathaniel, a curate; the monosyllabic Costard; and Dull, the dim-witted constable. They’re no match for the Princess, Maria, Katherine, dark-skinned Rosaline (often likened to the Dark Lady of the Sonnets), and Boyet, their attending lord and in-house critic of the “sweet smoke of rhetoric.”
Marjorie Garber, astute Shakespearean commentator, calls Love’s Labor’s Lost “a play about young lovers caught with their sonnets down.”
At the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, John Lee Beatty’s gorgeous set is a perfect site for contemplation and comeuppance. It’s the King’s “royal park,” with Balboa Park in the background. Trees thick with coiling ivy — or rampant kudzu — shelter the stage from the outside world. They even blend with the towering eucalypti in the distance. An ornate, wrought iron gate, marble stairs, and lush lawn complete the portrait of a green sanctuary far from real-world concerns.
Beatty complicates the bucolic setting, however. A statue of a naked young woman stands upstage right, with a grabby little cupid close behind. The celibate lords of Navarre will study with this distraction in their midst?
Michael Krass’s elegant fashions suggest the 18th Century, though modern-day sunglasses and the occasional fist-bump yank one from the period (also, ownership of the Acquitaine, a key issue in the play, was long since settled by then). The costumes also match the vocal styles, from ornate (Triney Sandoval’s hilarious, over-the-top Armado), to stately (Kristen Connolly’s well-spoken Princess), to comical (Greg Hildreth’s always engaging Costard), to the terse (Patrick Kerr’s perplexed responses as Nathaniel), to the feisty (Pascale Armand’s attitude-rich Rosaline), and the ethereal (Stephen Spinella’s amazingly pedantic Holofernes, though they should cut the silly comic bit after he berates the lords — “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble” — for being jerks).
Kieran Campion and Jonny Orisini, as Berowne and the King, do not go gently from entitlement, and Kevin Cahoon’s artful Boyet earns laughs at every turn.
Most of Shakespere’s comedies end with marriages. They were supposed to: the genre says that all conquering love must restore order. But many of the Bard’s marriages begin in haste, some even without courtship. One often wonders how many could outlive the honeymoon.
With Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare makes one of the most daring moves in drama. He puts a wintry cloud on the horizon from the beginning. In the end, he upsets the flow of his comedy — but rightfully so. The King, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumain may — or may not — have learned how to talk the talk honestly. But are they ready to walk down the aisle and make what the Princess calls a “world-without-end bargain”?
Only time will tell. And “that’s too long for a play.”
1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Love’s Labor’s Lost, by William Shakespeare
Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Directed by Kathleen Marshall, cast: Kristen Connolly, Kevin Cahoon, Pascale Armand, Kieran Campion, Greg Hildreth, Patrick Kerr, Jonny Orsini, Jake Millgard, Talley Beth Gale, Daniel Petzold, Triney Sandoval, Stephen Spinella, Nathan Whitmer, Kevin Hapso-Koffman, Amy Blackman, Ally Carey, Ajinkya Desai; scenic design, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Sten Severson; original music, Peter Golub
Playing through September 18, Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m.; theoldglobe.org