A half-hour before Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is set to start in Edgerton Park, several of the cast members strut onstage with instruments — a guitar, a banjo, a bass, a trumpet, a sax, a drum — to explain that they’re going to warm up the crowd. And warm the crowd they do, with take after enthusiastic take on early jazz, with a few more modern flourishes thrown in. It’s the kind of music that makes the audience tap their feet and chuckle spontaneously. It’s also a great encapsulation of Elm Shakespeare’s approach to this not-often-performed Shakespeare play. This Love’s Labour’s Lost is smart, lighthearted, full of energy, and a lot of fun.
The play runs through Sept. 2.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is pretty much a sex farce. Four guys — Ferdinand, the king of Navarre, and three of his friends, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine — make a pact to devote themselves to their studies for three years, adopting an ascetic lifestyle that involves a very meager diet, only three hours of sleep a night, and no sex. You can guess how long that’s going to last. Within a few minutes, their monastic plans are foiled by four women — the Princess of France, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine — who arrive in Navarre on a diplomatic mission. The women and men are instantly drawn to each other, but nothing in these stories can ever be simple. Letters are sent and apprehended. Arrangements are tampered with. There are machinations and misunderstandings. There is Russian dancing. Meanwhile, in an even more ridiculous B-plot, a Spanish visitor named Don Adriano de Amado is set to punish Costard, a local fool, for a dalliance with a local girl, Jaquenetta. He enlists the aid of Moth, a young page, and ends up in a thrown-together theater troupe with a schoolteacher, a priest, and a constable, who are set to perform for the local and visiting royalty.
You’ll be forgiven if the above sounds both a little cobbled together and also familiar. Scholars are unclear when exactly Shakespeare wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost, but it feels a lot like a first draft of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, it is believed, Shakespeare wrote at the same time or shortly thereafter. So many elements appear in both: the young, thwarted lovers; a royal couple trying to connect; a mockable play within a play; even a small, impish character who acts as the play’s court jester. Putting the two plays side by side, it’s easy to see why Love’s Labor’s Lost isn’t performed all that often while Midsummer is performed all the time. Love’s Labor’s Lost isn’t nearly as coherent as Midsummer is, and Lost doesn’t have anything in it to rival the profound wonderment of Nick Bottom’s famous speech, or the chance for a sudden, gut-wrenching bait-and-switch at the end of an intentionally amateur drama originally played for laughs.
What Love’s Labour’s Lost does have, however, is some of the most delightful language Shakespeare wrote. Overwrought in the best sense, with line after impossibly clever line, the play is the kind of thing someone writes when they’re drunk on their own creativity — and since Shakespeare was a genius, his version of that is a thrill to hear, and a thrill to see performed. The play is at its best and most fun when it’s most off the rails. And thanks to Rebecca Goodheart’s fleet direction, an immensely talented and game cast, and some inspired set and costume design, Elm Shakespeare finds a way to make every joke land, no matter how preposterous.
As the four young men, Martin Lewis, Aaron Bartz, Michael Hinton, and Kingston Farady exude camaraderie and well-intentioned, misspent youth. Bartz in particular shines as Berowne, a natural ham who is somehow both the smartest and the dumbest of the lot. Rachel Clausen, Lori Vega, Sasha Mahmoud, and Betzabeth Castro come across as four women who have been friends for a long time and all know they’re way smarter than their suitors. James Andreassi gloriously chews the scenery as the melodramatic Don Adriano, and Brianna Bauch imbues Moth with a wired athleticism that is a joy to watch.
The set, designed by Izmir Ickbal, is redolent of the best Jazz Age party you wish you could have gone to, complete with a pavilion of lights that by rights should be a permanent installation in Edgerton Park. A clever color-coded costume design by Elivia Bonvenzi pairs off the four men and four women right from the start, making the end of the romantic entanglements seem like a foregone conclusion, until the colors mix and remix as the machinations and misunderstandings kick in.
But as the 23-member cast populates the stage more and more, it becomes clear that Love’s Labour’s Lost is really an ensemble piece, and not just an extended ode to love (and horniness). It’s also an extremely self-aware piece of theater to the point where it’s almost ahead of its time. It’s as much about a playwright in love with the theater, and in love with the musicality of language, the songs he can make the grammar sing. It’s thus a rare treat to see the play performed, and performed so well.
Elm Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost runs Tuesday through Sunday in Edgerton Park on Whitney Avenue through Sept. 2. Music starts at 7:30 p.m. The show starts at 8:00 p.m. Admission is free. Visit Elm Shakespeare Company’s website for more information.