By Colin Douglas
Whisked away to the self-indulgent eighteenth century from the late sixteenth century, when it’s guessed that Shakespeare wrote and first presented his romantic comedy, Love’s Labor’s Lost, Marti Maraden, the former artistic director of the Canadian Stratford Festival, has chosen to set this wordy entertainment during the Age of Reason.
It’s understandable, since the plot revolves around youthful Spanish King Ferdinand and his insatiable quest for learning. It’s an evening of lovesick swains, groan-inducing puns, sophisticated wordplay, classical literary allusions and priggish, academic humor. For audiences who revel in this kind of comedy, the production is a feast for the eye and ear (including some original music for this production). For others, the play is a merely a rhyme fest, filled with dense language, colorful, amusing characters, some amusing songs and a story that bears a certain resemblance to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Ferdinand, King of Navarre, portrayed by the talented John Tufts, opens the play by demanding that his three highborn buddies, Longaville (Madison Niederhauser), Dumaine (Julian Hester) and the brazen, outspoken Berowne (played with spunk and humor by the brilliant Nate Burger) sign a pledge to fast, forego sleep and avoid relationships with the fairer sex for the next three years. The plan would force the gentlemen to free themselves from distraction and fully devote their lives to study and the development of their minds.
Unexpectedly, the headstrong Princess of France (a lovely and articulate Jennie Greenberry) arrives in Navarre, accompanied by her three beautiful and equally shrewd companions (played by Taylor Blim, Jennifer Latimore and Laura Rook). They enjoy a flirtation with the King and his three courtly companions, but are interrupted by a subplot that involves a group of commoners, everyday men and women who provide the best moments of humor in the Bard’s pastoral romantic comedy.
They include one of Chicago’s most magnificent comic actors, the terrific Alex Goodrich, as the witty Costard; Allen Gilmore, hilarious as a foppish Spaniard lothario, named Don Armado; Moth, his young pageboy lackey, played with humor and enthusiasm by Aaron Lamm; a trio of wandering players, much like the Rude Mechanicals, that include pompous scholar Holofernes (portrayed with perfect arrogance and verbosity by David Lively), his fawning cleric friend, Sir Nathaniel (a deliciously funny Greg Vinkler), and their servant companion, appropriately named Dull (a very funny Steven Pringle). Add to this group the delightful Maggie Portman, as the sassy, sensual milkmaid, Jaquenetta; James Newcomb, completely at home with his portrayal of the ladies’ high-handed French courtier, Boyet; and Mario Guzman, Drew Johnson and Manny Buckley as various lords of the French court.
The visual element of this production is one of jaw-dropping beauty and elegance. Christina Poddubiuk’s sumptuous costumes are as if luxurious images from the great works of Rococo and Neoclassic paintings have suddenly come to life. Wigs and makeups are designed by Richard Jarvie. Kevin Depinet’s idyllic Spanish countryside is dominated by a sprawling tree that drops leaves, on cue, throughout the production. A wooden swing drops from the branches, providing a unique seating area. A sweeping, stylized staircase leads up to a balustraded portico that’s backed by a lovely pastoral landscape on an oversized canvas. This romantic world is illuminated by Greg Hofmann’s lush lighting, and the air is awash with music and twittering birds, thanks to Keith Thomas’ artistry.
Maraden’s lively direction keeps this pun-infused, language-saturated comedy moving briskly along. Set during the Age of Reason, this romance, one of Shakespeare’s least-produced comedies, is fun for any aficionado of clever rhymes, pedantic comedy and sophisticated wordplay. It’s a play whose plot is a bit reminiscent of the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring a group of young lovers roughing it in the forest, whereupon a makeshift troupe of commoners perform a play for their enlightenment. There are also jokesters and buffoons, disguises and deceptions, all played for laughs, that seem highly improbable, but play appropriately theatrical, much to the delight of the audience.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents the musical play “Loves Labor’s Lost” through March 26 in the Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.