Although it’s one of Shakespeare’s comedies, many of Love’s Labor’s Lost’s baroque jokes ain’t exactly funny—or not to modern ears, anyway. As much about the perils of rote classical learning as the pangs of unrequited love, the play must feature more obsolete wordplay about Latin declensions per minute than anything else in the canon. Classicists, delight! Shakespeare lovers hoping for a sweet-sad-jocund Twelfth Night kinda evening? Brace your ears.
Faced with the archaic tangle of much of the play’s poetry, you can understand why director Karin Coonrod, in her new production at the Public, decides to trim it back and lay on the slapstick. Her leanish two-hour version slims down the subplots, concentrating on the main action’s parable about real-world love defeating scholarly good intentions. But she also tries to cut away the play’s ambiguities, turning it into the unfussy Shakespearean romp it never really was.
One fine day, the King of Navarre and a brace of aristocratic buds take an ill-considered vow: to scorn the pleasures of the flesh—women above all, but also delicious snacks and a good night’s sleep—and hit the books hard, drilling philosophy till they know everything there is to know about the universe (in Shakespeare’s time this was not an impossible goal). But their cramming can’t outlast the arrival of the alluring Princess of France and her klatch of aristocratic honeys—soon, the would-be schoolboys are devoting their academic energy to arguing themselves out of the classroom and into love. Meanwhile, Don Armado, a boisterous Spanish stereotype, and Holofernes, a schoolmaster high on the fumes emanating from classical tomes, show us a range of strategies for mangling the English language.
Many of the loudest laughs in Coonrod’s production come from physical gags or arch little interjections. (At times, it’s as if we’re watching a different play, some knockabout farce, that has been dubbed into Shakespearean.) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does point to a question that hulks elephant-like in the room throughout the evening. Why this play? By simplifying Love’s down to a slaphappy rom-com about hijinks among four matched pairs of generic lovers (with some wacky hangers-on), Coonrod is apparently aiming to create A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.0.
Seemingly baffled by the text, some company members elect to ignore it. This Holofernes (Steven Skybell) is a Jerry Lewis–like boob, screeching his classical quibbles like a fictional Oriental language, and getting his chuckles elsewhere. (There’s a problem when the headiest character in the play—so heady he probably forgets he has a body—mimes pooping to indicate thinking.) Other performers simply miss the point: I’ve never seen a less funny rendition of Armado’s “I do affect the very ground” soliloquy—usually catnip for a classical comedian, but given a weirdly perfunctory recitation here by Reg E. Cathey. A few actors fare better—Nick Westrate’s witty Berowne and Robert Stanton’s hillbilly Dull are highlights—but most of the ensemble seems an iamb or two behind the verse much of the time.
The larger problem here is that Love’s Labor’s Lost isn’t really the sunny comedy Coonrod clearly wants it to be: Shakespeare’s lovers are too deliberately similar, the romantic gamesmanship too highly wrought, the verbal quibbling too intense, the strange masques that round out the play too meta. Something else is going on besides firing hormones. The bubbly play is actually making serious arguments about the fractious on-again/off-again love affair between language and meaning, and the difficult relationship between abstract ideas and experiential knowledge. Not easy stuff to stage, but not just boys-meet-girls, either. (As each lover gets googoo-eyed, Coonrod brings on a cherub with a bow—literal much?)
Love’s eerie conclusion—mingling layered pageants-within-the-play with a chilling gust of grief—condemns the dudes to what they said they wanted at the beginning: a period of lonely contemplation on an isolated mountaintop. That outcome should seem almost tragic, deferring the mass marriages that ought to conclude the comedy, keeping conciliatory happiness in suspense. Instead, Coonrod’s version tries to file away the ending’s rough edges by prolonging a rousing song—but the uneasiness, the potential for loss amidst love that Shakespeare’s title alludes to, remains.