Four ladies, four dudes, some wacky clowns, and lots of wordplay—sounds like a foolproof formula for Shakespearean comedy, right? In the case of Love’s Labour’s Lost, though, it’s not that simple: On its surface, the play is a love-fest celebrating youthful freedom and skewering self-righteous pedantry; underneath, it’s also quite self-conscious and dark. Characters are obsessed with their own character types, intricacies of language inspire lengthy digressions, and the ending veers abruptly away from the quadruple-wedding bonanza we’re led to expect. Too often, directors ignore the play’s minor key, trying to turn Love’s Labour’s Lost into the predictable rom-com it isn’t.
So it’s a delight that the Public’s new musical version—adapted and directed by Alex Timbers, with charming songs by Michael Friedman—engineers a true match between Shakespearean comedy and musical theater, without smothering the play’s pricklier parts. On the patio of a Poconos-style resort, the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) holds a solemn ceremony with his best buddies Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham), and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe). They’ve come to the country to fulfill a vow of scholarly self-denial, abstaining from romance, booze, and culinary indulgence, the better to bury themselves in books. But no sooner have they relinquished their Bud Lights than temptation comes traipsing up the lawn, in the form of four old flames: the Princess (Patti Murin) and her lovely sidekicks (Maria Thayer, Kimiko Glenn, and Audrey Lynn Weston). Will the boys maintain their studious remove, or surrender to hormonal thrills? More importantly, are love and intellect as incompatible as they seem?
Setting these high jinks at an elite college reunion—think Gossip Girl goes camping—provides endless opportunities for lampooning cushy dorm life, where academia battles hedonistic temptation. Adorno and Kierkegaard, cafeteria waffle stations, late nights, and unlimited supplies of pot are all entertainingly mocked. Two oblivious professor types, spewing unintelligible jargon on the sidelines of the plot, are hilarious, their convoluted chatter clashing with other characters’ modern speech (and their academic-regalia nightgowns are not to be missed). A frank romance between Spanish interloper Don Armado (Caesar Samayoa) and barmaid Jaquenetta (Rebecca Naomi Jones) contrasts poignantly with the upper class’s guarded flirtations—especially when Jaquenetta sings the evening’s darkest song, a brooding ballad titled “Love’s a Gun.”
Timbers weaves modern dialogue with Shakespeare’s original, steering us succinctly from one exuberant song to the next. Delicious group numbers illustrate the boys’ defections from scholarship to courtship, as they compose desperate love poems to their previously spurned maidens. Dumaine woos in Elizabethan garb, while Longaville’s passion finds form in a tap-dance spectacular. The girls are delightfully defiant, careening around in a golf cart armed with Slurpees to battle their ex-beaux. Best of all, musical theater’s embrace of the unsubtle allows for the theatrical self-consciousness that makes this play so smart. Rosaline, the Princess’s BFF, muses on the perils of always playing snarky sidekick—never romantic lead—while the whole cast reminds us that real-life stories don’t wrap up as tidily as plays.
Such total adaptation has its perils: Timbers slashes so much Shakespeare that it’s a joy when the actors actually speak it, and a reminder of the rich poetry we’re missing out on. Still, Friedman and Timbers gracefully capture the play’s important ideas—that intellect and passion aren’t enemies but mutually necessary—in highly enjoyable form, an all-inclusive theatrical vacation I’d happily take again.