Upfront disclosure: of all Shakespeare’s comedies, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” has long been the most elusive for me. I never understood the characters’ motivations or how the seemingly random sub-plots fit together.
Like why would a quartet of yeasty young noblemen give up food, sleep and sex to devote themselves to unspecified “studies” under a pair of utterly inane pedants? Why would they then promptly turn around and trash their vows by chasing the first skirts they see? Why would the girls reciprocate the affections of such ninnies? But, having done so, why would they then bamboozle their swains into mixing up who’s wooing whom?
And what about the play’s lower caste clown characters? Why would they employ each other as go-betweens in their sexual rivalries? Why would the town sexpot opt for an aging fuddy duddy over a studly wise-guy?
Then, too, what’s with the fustian play-within-a-play that the clowns perform for the nobles’ derision? Not to mention the completely extraneous epilogue ballad comparing spring with winter.
None of this added up for me until I saw Director Shana Cooper’s spirited production in the current Ashland season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As soon as the male protagonists sprinted onstage, it all came clear. Costume designer Christal Weatherly had dressed them all in striped rugby jerseys!
Which brought back to me, in a Proustian flash, how badly I wanted a jersey like that when I was about 15 (although I could never muster the suavity to actually wear one.) And, along with that memory came a whole host of other associations from that time: my attempts at adult gravity interspersed with outbursts of fatuous juvenilia, my furtive fascination and feigned indifference towards girls, my simultaneous awe and scorn for my elders and betters.
The costumes explained everything, not just the jerseys, but also the Madras plaid slacks and sockless loafers: these onstage “noblemen” were actually nothing but preppies, JFK-era high school snot-noses, just like me back in the day. And their girls, all in floral print flare skirts and cinnabar lipstick, were debutante bobby-soxers.
For all their fine word-play, these people are probably still popping zits. By getting them up in the teenage garb of my generation (which is, after all, the core demographic of Ashland audiences), Cooper reminds us that it’s chemical imbalance, hormonal rip tides, that makes love so laborious at that age.
We’ve all been there once. So cut them a little slack and don’t expect sense from them. Enough that they’re good looking and well-spoken, full of hijinks and mood swings.
All four lords of Navarre and all four ladies of the French court fill this bill, but the stand-outs, with the best lines and the most self-awareness, are Gregory Linington as Berowne and Stephanie Beatriz as Rosaline. Among the clown characters, Ashland neophyte Jack Willis manages to inject a little youthful spring into the ponderous form of Don Armado, the love-struck Spanish dotard.
As a foil to Armado’s pomposities, Emily Sophia Knapp brings a gamine charm to the role of his fey and diminutive valet, Moth. Another striking bit of cross-gender casting is Robin Goodrin Nordli as Boyet. Shakespeare wrote this character as a bitchy old courtier in the French retinue. But Nordli feminizes him into a busybody middle-aged house-mother who effectively thwarts the headlong pairings of her young charges.
Just as well, too. The girls (always a little more grown up than the boys) place their suitors on a year’s probation and assign them ascetic tasks before they will even consider their proposals. The span of their whirlwind courtship has been “a time, methinks, too short to make a world-without-end-bargain in,” as the French princess tells her kingly suitor. Youth may be pretty and heady, but Love, it turns out, entails more earnest Labors.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, through Oct. 9. For ticket information, visit the festival’s website. For more reviews by Lincoln Kaye, please click here.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.
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