Love's Labour's Lost
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
December 9, 2009
Shakespeare's Globe certainly knows how to work a crowd. The company, which usually performs by the Thames in a reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre of Shakespeare's time, has returned on tour to New York City with artistic director Dominic Dromgoole's production of Love's Labour's Lost.
The company, which uses traditional Elizabethan dress and live music on period instruments, is known for an emphasis on the bawdy, and for engaging and interacting with the audience, who in their home venue would see the play in an open air theater that brings you very close to the action. For those who are willing to be the groundlings, standing in the yard by the stage, you can pay as little as £5 (less than $10). Brought indoors at the Michael Schimmel Center, Dromgoole's production succeeds in involving the audience and getting a lot of laughs, but this is largely done despite Shakespeare's comedy rather than with it.
Believed to be one of the early works in Shakespeare's career, Love's Labour's Lost can be a hard sell. Parts of the play feel very familiar, like early attempts at ideas that Shakespeare would improve upon in his later, more famous comedies. And the play suffers by comparison for those that know these later triumphs.
There is a scene where characters disguise themselves to better woo, but not resulting in any great revelations; there are two sharp-tongued lovers, but their lines lack the bite of Beatrice and Benedict; there are speeches on the nature of love, but nothing approaching the insight of a Rosalind or a Viola; there is a play-within-a-play, but not a good one.
The more accessible and frequently produced Shakespeare comedies tend to be ones with a lot of plot—mistaken identities, disguise, separated twins confusing people, love potions, and plenty of action to keep even audience members who are challenged by the language entertained. But unlike Shakespeare's more populist comedies—the ones actually performed at the original Globe Theatre—LLL is very verbal and intellectual. Some scholars believe it was originally performed for a group of lawyers and students, and may have been written with such an audience in mind, as much of the humor relies on the enjoyment of well-rhymed couplets or jokes that work best if you know Latin. I don't know that audiences enjoy a well-rhymed couplet or a Latin joke the way they used to, and so those that produce this play have their work cut out for them.
Unfortunately, in Dromgoole's production, instead of rising to the challenge of the play, the solution seems to be to aim low and add shtick. A lot of shtick.
If the problem at hand is that you have a scene where two characters are arguing about Latin, then add a fart joke, and have the characters be drinking. If a scene between two lovers bantering back and forth in rhyming couplets is getting dull, then try a funny voice. Or some zany dancing. Did these choices get laughs? Sure. But all too often these bits of business had nothing to do with the play, and felt cheap rather than earned—laughs that are sought out and gotten because it has been a minute since the last laugh, no matter what the scene at hand is actually about.
And don't get me wrong, I don't feel that Shakespeare needs to stand still and be well-behaved and precious. In fact, some of my favorite productions have been ones loaded with big, brave choices and physical comedy. But like all good clowning, the comedy in those productions is rooted in truthful characterization, and helps tell the story rather than distract from it.
Usually, the play-within-the-play, which comes towards the end of Love's Labour's Lost, is the most over-the-top scene. In it, the most clownish characters are attempting to act, so anything goes. But in the world of this production, where the King and his men might ride each other around like horses, and a food fight can erupt amongst the royals, there isn't room left to go over the top.
An exception to this problem is Paul Ready's portrayal of the Don Adriano De Armado. Often this role, one of Shakespeare's cartoonish foreigners, would be one of the silliest in the play. But Ready grounds Armado in sincerity, and as a result I found him to be one of the most consistent and compelling characters in the play, and hilarious without seeming to try as hard to be as some of the other performers. Also good is Michelle Terry as the Princess of France. Terry gives her Princess an unpredictable eccentricity that helps the character make sense in this over-the-top production, and is one of the only performers who slows down long enough to take advantage of the language of the play.
The rest of the characters, despite what seems to be a very skilled and energetic ensemble of actors, get largely washed out in a production so overloaded with general wackiness. Particularly lost is any chemistry between the romantic couples.
If your taste in Shakespeare is for traditional Elizabethan atmosphere (and designer Jonathan Fensom's set and costumes are gorgeous examples of that period), and if your taste in comedy tends towards the broad and silly, this may be for you. But I left feeling that a lot of crowd-pleasing tricks, ones that might have been perfect for Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night's Dream outside by the Thames, had been applied to the wrong play.