Are a group of men able to give up all contact with women for three years in order to better pursue their education? If you think you know the answer, you probably do, but William Shakespeare was always able to explore familiar questions in new dramatic (and comedic) ways. Love's Labour's Lost, which opened last night at the Atlantic 453, is no exception. This production by the Women's Shakespeare Company, however, doesn't make that exploration easy.
The story is more or less what you would expect. After King Ferdinand of Navarre (Catherine McNelis) and three of his lords promise to stay away from women during their scholarly pursuits, it is revealed that the Princess of France (Kate Hess) and her three attendants are about to arrive at the court. Even from the end of the first scene, there is little question about what will happen next, and most of the events you can imagine probably do occur. Centuries of mimicry and adaptation may render some of Shakespeare's scenes familiar, but they still seem fresh and humorous in their original form, with a conclusion that may defy some expectations.
The director, Christopher Briggs, succeeds mainly on two counts. First of all, nearly every member of the all-female cast is capable of playing believable men, with very little camp. More significantly, though, is the language. Briggs has apparently gone to great lengths to make sure his cast understands every word. That is perfectly communicated to the audience, there is never a moment when it appears that the actors have any question about what is going on around them.
It is particularly unfortunate that Mr. Briggs didn't trust more of the language alone to put forth the story. Though it is common for modern productions of Shakespeare's plays to telegraph movements, or to "explain" the meanings of certain words with hand gestures or other movements, the actors in this production seem to take it to about the most extreme and absurd lengths possible.
Amy Rhodes, as Ferdinand's servant Costard, must always graphically display each double entendre she speaks (and, as with many of Shakespeare's low comedy characters, this happens frequently). Dorothy Abrahams, as the Spanish knight Armado, speaks in a nearly impenetrable accent, making her lines difficult to understand, which requires her to go still further to make her meaning understood. Given the character's relative importance to events in the play, it is often difficult to know exactly what events Armado has set into motion until they are already underway.
Luckily, not all of the actors have this problem. Karen Sternberg as Berowne, one of Ferdinand's lords, especially, is able to turn in a well-crafted character, being both humorous and moving without the over exaggeration the rest of the cast can so easily fall into. Kate Hess, as the Princess, always displays the poise and elegance necessary to make her role believable.
Love's Labour's Lost may not be one of Shakespeare's better known plays, but it displays the same reverence for language and drama that his more popular works do. It is a shame that Briggs's similar affection did not spread beyond the stage. The audience deserves the same treatment the actors obviously received, but what they received in this production is not what they should hope for.
Pictured - Kate Hess and Catherine McNelis
Love's Labour's Lost