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Love’s Labour’s Lost

A Production of Other-Wordliness

The Shakespeare Forum, The Gym at Judson, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, June 15, 2013, center, second row of box theate
Directed by Andrew Borthwick-Leslie and Sybille Bruun

Don Armado in white naval uniform, arms spread, apple in one hand, hat in the other, Moth with jacket, orange and black stripped tie, shin-length pants looking askance
Don Armado (Filipe Valle Costa, left) exclaims on love as Moth (Jake Elitzer) watches in the Shakespeare Forum production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. "The world of our production, just like the words of the play, is made of paper and ink," the co-directors say of the setting. Photo by Allison Stock, Shakespeare Forum.

To borrow a line from Hamlet: Ask us Polonius-like what we are watching here, and we'll reply, "Words, words, words." William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost is a play about language, a comedy of and about spoken and written words, and this is foremost in the minds of Andrew Borthwick-Leslie and Sybille Bruun, the co-directors of this Shakespeare Forum production. "Inspired by the sonnets and by the poems and letters of the play, the world of our production, just like the words of the play, is made of paper and ink," they write in their program notes. Thus, The Gym at Judson studio theater's backdrop (designed by scenic and lighting designer Oona Curley) is columns sketched on huge sheets of paper draped from the ceiling, while tables on the stage are covered in paper that looks like manuscripts.

The action, too, focuses on the words. This is no roustabout comic romp. Even the Cossacks' visit to the Princess's train, the amateur presentation of the Nine Worthies, and the triple-reveal scene that is the play's centerpiece are played with low-key slapstick. The only notable physicality in this production, other than Don Armado's flourishing gestures, are inexplicable bursts of male measuring: several times some guy violently grabs the lapels of another guy with a threat of further harming—very unwordly behavior, indeed. For the most part, though, this is a presentation of fine line readings from a cast well-versed in verse. This is symphonic Shakespeare, a score of words that you can appreciate through the melodic performances of this chorale of actors even if you don't fully understand the lines.

The co-directors also note that many scholars believe Love's Labour's Lost may have been written in tandem with, or shortly after Shakespeare wrote, his narrative poems and sonnets. Borthwick-Leslie and Bruun posit that the sonnets may be autobiographical, and, metaphorically, at least, this play may be, too. Seeking autobiographical matter in any of Shakespeare's works is always a dangerous supposition, but Shakespeare may in fact be punking anybody giving him too much credit, for the play's acclaimed poetry could itself be one big joke.

In Love's Labour's Lost, The Bard makes fun of people's use of words, whether it's people butchering the English language (such as Don Armado), people who use language as elitist intellectualism (such as the schoolmaster Holofernes and the curate Sir Nathaniel), and people who twist language to suit their political or sexual purposes (Berowne and Navarre). Each gets his or her comeuppance in this play. Says Moth of Don Armado, Holofernes, and Nathaniel: "They have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps." Says the Constable Dull, replying to Holofernes noting that Dull "hast spoken no word all this while": "Nor understood none neither, sir." Says the Princess when Navarre pleads with her to stay and further hear his love suit even after they have received news of her father's death: "I understand you not." Interesting that both the play's smartest character and its Dull-est at some point can't comprehend what someone else is speaking: the fault is clearly in the speaker. Even the gorgeous verse—most of it Berowne's—for which this play is so highly regarded is faulted, for the lines are laced with duplicity, loaded with double meanings, and cause confusion (ironically, it is Berowne who admits that "Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief"; the play proves, too, that plain words best pierce the heart of love, too).

Shakespeare also seems to be poking fun at his own kind—if not himself. He takes aim at the playwright through the presentation of the Nine Worthies and Berowne's joke that 12 months and a day are too long for a play. Shakespeare also seems to be ridiculing the professional poet, and this would be especially intriguing if he just wrapped up writing the sonnets not as autobiographical contemplations but on commission in behalf of someone else, a common practice in Shakespeare's time. Just as he makes references to the theater in many of his plays, he also alludes to the professional sonneteer and even pokes fun at the commissioned sonnet in such early plays as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Edward III. Love's Labour's Lost, then, could be the ultimate slam of a man who literally had been employed in love's labors.

The other word in the play's title is Lost, and Borthwick-Leslie and Bruun make much over the specter of loss haunting the proceedings. The play famously ends on a downer when the hijinks are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Mercadé bearing news to the princess that her father is dead. This production begins with a similar loss, but one totally superfluous to the text as Navarre and the three lords attend a funeral—Navarre's father, perhaps? This somehow spurs the young king to create his academe demanding three years' study, fasting, and celibacy of him and his lords. It also gets the production off to a sluggish start. Navarre (Francis Mateo), Longaville (Maxon Davis), and Dumaine (Tyrien Obahnjoko) are stiffly formal, and Berowne (Tyler Moss) is not the jester of repute that Rosaline would later send to hospitals to spread laughter among the sick and dying. Instead, he argues against the king's decrees with dread seriousness. In this opening scene, even Navarre's reading of Don Armado's letter is droll; if such flights of linguistic fancy from the Spaniard are supposed to be the court's entertainment for the coming three years, the lords seem more disdainful toward than delighted in this first hilarious sampling.

The energy picks up and the comedy kicks in with the actual appearance of Don Armado and his page, the boy Moth. Though he first appears in a fetal position on stage in a state of love-sopped anguish, Filipe Valle Costa's Don Armado lives life to the power of 11. His grandiose language is spoken with grandiose vocal and physical expression. This Don Armado, dressed in a white navy captain's uniform, not only loves to hear himself talk but watch himself talk, too, keenly eyeing his gesturing hands. Moth is laden with the most obtuse jokes in the entire Shakespeare canon, but Jake Elitzer gives such a charge to the character and a full understanding of his lines that he steals the show. Elitzer is testimony that such complex parts should be played by adults rather than boys, but he still looks the part in schoolboy jacket, tie, and shin-length pants and with his boyish mannerisms. One of the production's most delightful moments comes when Don Armado requests a song of Moth, and Elitzer first tries out Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," then throat sings a Gregorian chant, and finally pleases the Spaniard with "Bésame Mucho," forgetting the words and resorting to "blah blah blah" to finish out the song.

While Valle Costa and Elitzer are outstanding in their portrayals of Don Armado and Moth, theirs are not extraordinary interpretations. Some of the other community characters, however, depart from tradition. Costard proves a most intelligent swain in the hands of David Friedlander, and Tai Verley plays Jaquenetta with great dignity, stubborn pride, and a fair amount of understanding, not at all the slut as she's reported to be in the play. Holofernes is a woman in this production, but Tracy Hostmyer does not let up in the role's elitist pomposity; in fact, her delivery succeeds in making accessible the part's highfalutin' humor. The only questionable aspect of the gender change is consequently having her and Dull (Daniel Krstyen) enter a flirtation that seems destined to end in a romance. I simply can't see Holofernes and Dull lasting beyond one date when she can't even accept his identifying a deer as a "pricket."

After the solemnity of the opening scene, the arrival of the Princess of France and her train infuses Navarre's court with lighthearted charm. Hannah Rose Goalstone maintains her royal demeanor while displaying a hint of impishness as integral to her fetching personality. Jessika D. Williams wears Katherine Hepburn–style pants and bears a Hepburn attitude and condescending humor in her portrayal of Rosaline. Kate Kenney is a sweet Katherine, and Whitney Egbert's Maria maintains a winking expression as if she's regarding everything with a sly delight. Nate Washburn as Boyet balances well his role as ambassador, guardian, and wit-warrior, but he also harbors a lust for the women he serves.

Holofernes in frumpy brown dress, dark frame glasses and hair done up in a bun talks closely with Don Armado in white navy uniform as Dull, a classicly uniformed police officer, is in the background
Holofernes (Tracy Hostmyer, left) and Don Armado (Filipe Valle Costa) converse with the scraps of "a great feast of languages" as, in the background, Dull (Daniel Krstyen) understands nary a word in Shakespeare Forum's production of Love's Labour's Lost. Photo by Allison Stock, Shakespeare Forum.

Understandable. With these women, the men of Navarre's academe haven't a chance, either. Moss's Berowne, so expert at manipulating words to suit his particular needs, falls to frustration when his skills at expression utterly fail in courting Rosaline. Mateo's Navarre struggles to maintain his solemn attitude even as he realizes that he may be looking silly to the women. Obahnjoko's Dumaine, he of the double-breasted navy blazer, finds himself in what for him is the unchartered territory of romantic disorder reflected in an unknotted tie. Lord Longaville has it worst of all. Davis plays Longaville as an anal note-taker, binder in hand scribbling down decrees, comments, and information; when he realizes Boyet never gives him a straight answer about the identity of Maria, Longeville furiously crosses out the answers as his choler rises. But it is Maria who sends him over the edge; for the triple-reveal scene, the disheveled Longeville not only has several sheets of sonnets in hand but also stuck into his belt, and the words love, goddess, and heaven are inked onto his left arm, and duty, oath, and perjury on his right.

Costume designers Jill Sunderland and Ellie Philips dress the characters in a modernish look but they also work in echoes of the 1940s in Rosaline's Hepburn pants, the 1950s in the Princess's full-skirted dresses, and the mid-60s in Maria's Mad Men dress. This across-the-recent-decades styling is an apt choice for, though many of the play's specific Elizabethan-era jokes are too arcane for us to understand, the comedy's purpose is timeless. Our workaday lives are filled with the likes of Holofernes, Don Armado, Berowne, and Moth, too. And if the rest of us are all a little Dull watching this performance, we can still appreciate this exquisite word play.

Eric Minton
June 19, 2013

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