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Love's Labor's Lost

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hoon Lee, Keith Eric Chappelle, Nick Westrate, Jorge Chacon, and Renee Elise Goldsberry.
Photo by Richard Termine.

The four men at the heart of William Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost may be under the delusion that they can sequester themselves with their studies for three years, but life—and the women who also occupy it—make that impossible. Just as temptation will follow them everywhere, so will the action of Karin Coonrod's spirited but uneven production of the play at The Public Theater's Anspacher Theater, which ensures you'll know exactly how the mean feel trying to maintain their pledges of celibacy.

For even the audience is no barrier against the zaniness perpetrated by the King of Navarre (Hoon Lee), and his hangers-on Berowne (Nick Westrate), Longaville (Keith Eric Chappelle), and Dumaine (Jorge Chacon). More than once, someone runs into the house to escape being caught writing a love letter. The steps inside the theater are frequent perches from which someone else watches and comments on the action. And when it comes time for a raucous song, the actors are as likely to belt out their parts from the aisles as they are to dance about onstage.

Coonrod's environmentalist sensibilities pay double dividends: They transform the audience into the ostensibly disapproving society the King and his charges hope to shun, and they reinforce the controlling notion here that romance is inescapable. It should be noted, however, that neither the King and his men nor the Princess of France (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and her attendants, Rosaline (Rebecca Brooksher), Maria (Samira Wiley), and Katharine (Michelle Beck) have any less fun when they're planted in the center of designer John Conklin's courtyard set. For them, love is always a game, and one well worth playing.

But the ebullience of the cast and the no-boundaries staging cannot keep the good times rolling continuously for over two intermissionless hours, as is required. Eventually you find yourself craving consistency and depth, and neither is on spotlit display. Coonrod injects a variety of references to modern entertainment forms, from fragments of hip-hop dancing or the 1812 Overture, and they keep the action unpredictable, but they also rob the production of any concrete sense of time or place. Oana Botez Ban's costumes suggest something akin to recent memory—though the men wear short pants a surprising amount of the time—without ever fully transporting you.

That ultimate journey is crucial. Though this is one of Shakespeare's lighter entertainments, it demands enough concentrated thought to establish a balance between the fluffy fun and the melancholy finale that reminds you of how infrequently first-chased love works out long-term. Coonrod keeps deploying her tricks, but is always lopsided in one way or the other; usually it's erring on the side of comedy, as with the subplots concerning the Spanish knight Don Adriano (Reg E. Cathay), his page Moth (also Wiley), and the country girl named Jaquenetta (Stephanie DiMaggio) whom the Don wants to win from the fool Costard (Mousa Kraish). But when the serious stuff hits toward the end, it's difficult to process because of the lack of weight and heat in the gender battles you witness leading up to it.

By the final scenes, when the men start dressing as Russians and the women parade about in masks in order to test their paramours' true feelings, you start feeling as lost as the sexually frustrated folks you're watching. The actors, particularly Lee, Goldsberry, Westrate, and Brooksher, are not at fault—they do impressive work at leaking and suppressing their characters' ardor, and keeping these people on a single unbroken emotional track. Steven Skybell and Francis Jue, as a schoolmaster and curate conducting their own investigations into infatuation, may appear to be in a different play entirely (an in a theater with considerably higher ceilings) but also maintain the necessary sense of forward locomotion.

More often than not, Coonrod seems to moving in circles, if for no other reason than that circles are funny. Certainly she has no trouble producing the laughs, but she doesn't give you much else to take away from the experience. At its best, Love's Labour's Lost teases the heart and the mind equally. Unfortunately, Coonrod keeps you too focused on how they contrast so you never quite believe that—for excitable young people, at least—there doesn't need to be any difference between the two.

Love's Labor's Lost
Through November 16
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with no intermission
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