By Andrea Braun
Love’s Labor’s Lost is a “play” in the strictest sense of the word, and it’s fun to watch the characters pontificate, read their letters aloud (even if a couple of them go awry), flirt, and stretch language to illogical limits and syllogistic absurdity.
It’s well known in theatre circles that this early work in the Shakespeare canon isn’t often performed and conventional wisdom has it that it’s simply dated. Its puns and jokes are too much of their own time for contemporary audiences to “get” them. It also could be static considering how much standing and speaking there is if the stage business isn’t choreographed to avoid it.
I’m certainly pleased that director Tom Ridgely didn’t think in those limited terms. Our new artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has given us a comic jewel. I’m not familiar enough with the text to cite specific edits and emendations that may have been made, but I think some are there. It’s particularly hard to tell because Ridgely has paced this piece at 11 out of 10, and yet it’s wonderfully easy to follow.
The basic story is simple enough. Four young noblemen decide to take an oath to forgo romance for three years to allow time for study and contemplation, and the edict is issued that Navarre shall be singular in its observation of these rules. In a trice, four young women show up. Oops! What now?
The situation is that straightforward, but complicated by politics in that the men are the friends and companions of the King of Navarre (Sky Smith) and the Princess of France (Kea Trevett) representing her ailing father, the King, and her attendants and have come to discuss the disposition of the Aquitaine.
Flirting ensues, complete with the young men playing dancing Muscovites (you won’t believe it until you see it) and the Princess and her entourage exchanging jewelry to confuse the men about their identities. There are actually two plays-within-the-play, plus funny moments from the scholar Holofernes (Carine Montberband) and the curate Nathaniel (Katy Keating) whose routine reminds me of a Socratic version of “Who’s On First.”
Early in the action, we meet consummate clown Costard (Patrick Blindauer) as he’s being berated by the King for illicit relations with the wench Jacquinetta (Molly Meyer). Costard shows his own facility with language when he tries to get out of being punished for breaking the new law about congress with a woman, for which the Spaniard, the haughty and verbose Don Armado (Philip Hernandez), also in love with Jacquinetta, reports him. And the course is set for merriment throughout.
The set by Jason Simms is perfect, and contains more you than you might expect. Melissa Trn’s costumes span the ages from the vaguely Roman slave look sported by Costard, to Armado’s bedazzled uniform; the Curate and Holofernes in Elizabethan dress, the noblewomen in Bennett sisters garb sans the bonnets, and the men’s mostly timeless attire. With John Wylie’s lights, it all combines to create a beautiful show. Rusty Wandall incorporates wandering minstrels in his sound design, so we’re welcomed to the show with “Meet Me in St. Louis” as we enter, and “Gloria” complete with a Blues flag at curtain call, and much else throughout. While the actors are mostly excellent, it’s Tom Ridgely’s show and he’s got a winner.
The Shakespeare Festival runs in Forest Park through June 23 nightly at 8 p.m. except Mondays. Admission is free and festivities begin at 6:30 p.m. with a Green Show and a 25-minute version of the play performed Thursday-Sunday nights at 7:15 by the Shakespeare Squadron.