An orgy of English! A barrage of wordplay! An excess of wit! Shakespeare is back. And if this season’s opener is any gauge, Santa Cruz Shakespeare has entered the big leagues. Love’s Labour’s Lost—a daring choice—is nothing less than a showcase for some of the finest actors working in this country today.
Director Paul Mullins (director of Hamlet and 39 Steps in past seasons) polishes, energizes, and then unleashes his exceptional cast on one of Shakespeare’s most challenging works. Mullins had confidence in what has to be the most diverse cast this side of Hamilton. Good thing he did, since Labour’s is packed top to bottom with extravagant wordplay, historically dated asides, and the sorts of linguistically dense speeches that can leave lesser acting companies mumbling in the dust. This is a tricky play to get right. But because we can understand what the actors are saying—and because the cunning bits of stagecraft reinforce the words’ meanings—there are no dead spots. Everything moves, flows, and often astounds. Terrific staging from start to finish.
The story is quintessential Shakespeare: the King of Navarre (Lorenzo Roberts) has gathered three of his noble friends to join him in a utopian experiment. The men take an oath, albeit reluctantly, to forswear women and retreat from the world for three years. Alas, that very evening the Princess of France and her three noblewomen arrive on a political mission. As you can imagine, the men immediately ditch their pact and fall madly in love. Love letters are written, disguises are donned, and mischief is afoot.
Ribald counterweight to noble declarations of love is provided by pompous Spanish knight Don Armado (played to the hilt by Tommy A. Gomez), who is smitten with a country wench called Jaquenetta (Clea DeCrane). Enter a clueless bumpkin Costard (a terrific Vincent Williams), who also loves Jaquenetta. Kudos to Kailey Azure Green as the resourceful Moth. The interplay between the realms of noble court and real world are pitched to illuminate the deceit in each. Over-the-top declarations of desire and distress (Gomez rules!) provide dizzying slapstick. “Sweet smoke of rhetoric!”
What we have is ingenious comedy that doesn’t gloss over the nuances of love’s bitter sacrifices and compromises. “All delights are vain,” swears one of the hapless lovers. The entire ensemble ripples with invention, wit, and inspired play.
One of Shakespeare’s early comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost casts its spell with puns, double meanings, riddles, and other juicy language games. High language and low are braided together, each exposing the hypocrisy—and power—of the other. Every word, every inside joke, every crisp consonant was clearly spoken, heard, and understood. No muffled garbling, no unintelligible speechifying, and no amateurish shouting.
When the four noblemen, united in their determination to woo the princess and her women, disguise themselves as visiting Russians, ridiculous accents are added to the hilarity. The stage becomes a master class in dueling dialects, attitudes, and displays of the endless flexibility of the English language. That flexibility is pushed to its limits by Paige Lindsey White, who simply tears up the entire stage as a Latin-conjugating schoolmistress.
Brian Ibsen’s Berowne is masterful. Smooth, stylish and unerring in diction, Ibsen is a class act. As Boyet, eagle-eyed companion of the princess, Patty Gallagher has found the perfect part for her brilliant bag of tricks. Navarre’s other conspirators, Dumaine (Taha Mandviwala) and Longaville (Noah Yaconelli) are deliciously adroit. And as feisty Rosaline, Nia Kingsley smartly matches wits with Ibsen’s Berowne.
So much disarming and effective stage movement ignites this production that we are charmed just when we’d expect to disengage. Dashing, dancing, posing and prancing, the four men are utterly charismatic. Ably matched by the female players, who relish their clever game to confuse the men (this is Shakespeare), the company is ravishingly costumed by Nikki Delhomme. Everybody looks like a million dollars. Men in linen suits, tuxedos, and silly costumes for the play within the play, women in elegant traveling outfits and glittering ball gowns—all bearing a turn-of-the 19th century stamp. The set design by Erik Flatmo functions handsomely as a platform for endless antics. A musical finale, sung by the entire company, brings the unconventional tale of love, desire, and linguistic pretension to an enchanting close.
How we talk about love might or might not interfere with how we feel and how we act. Shakespeare knew enough about this to spark revelation a full five centuries later. Love’s language, in all its depth and silliness, is explored without mercy in this charming production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ runs through Sept. 2, at the Grove in Delaveaga Park. santacruzshakespeare.org.