When you first arrive in the theatre to see Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s very fine production of Shakespeare’s early comedy, you discover that you’ve suddenly been transported into something very much like Jean-Honore Fragonard’s painting “The Swing.” For this is the Enlightenment about to go into disarray, and that painting was the lightning rod for Enlightenment ire for its depiction of the idle pursuit of pleasure.
The entire production from background, to costumes, to lighting, and sound is utterly gorgeous. There are far worse ways to spend an evening than reveling in Georgian Era splendor.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is notable for being one of Shakespeare’s most dense plays in the sense of its language. It features the longest scene, longest word ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’ and longest speech. While the actors handle this linguistic density well, you do notice it. It lacks some of the grace and effortlessness of his later plays and gets bogged down in its own cleverness from time to time. The wordplay can be tiresome, no matter how charmingly delivered, because it goes on and on without a break. But in other sections, this play is either amusingly crass or absolutely hilarious.
It was first performed in the mid 1590s at the Inns of Court before Elizabeth I and because it focuses on Elizabethan-era political relationships it fell out of fashion for hundreds of years. It is recently getting more attention, as with this production. It is one of the few Shakespeare plays not adapted from obvious source materials.
The four main male characters are loose adaptations of Elizabethan-era dignitaries. The King of Navarre is based on Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV of France; Berowne on Charles de Gontaut Duc de Biron; Dumain on Charles, Duc de Mayenne; and Longaville on Henri I d’Orleans, Duc de Longueville. Biron was a friend of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite, and was especially well-known in England. Elizabethan audiences would have been familiar with these characters, but it’s not at all necessary for you to be to enjoy this production.
The King of Navarre (John Tufts) has convinced his three closest friends, Longaville (Madison Niederhauser), Dumaine (Julian Hester) and Berowne (the splendid Nate Burger, who does much of the heavy lifting in this play) as well as a visiting Spanish soldier Don Adriano de Armado (the amazing Allen Gilmore) to swear off women for three years and devote themselves to study and asceticism. Berowne puts up an argument against this at first, but ultimately agrees. Many speeches are made on the wisdom of study. The King bans women from within a mile of court.
Don Armado then tells him of a tryst between the maid Jaquenetta (Maggie Portman) and the clever bumpkin Costard (the hilarious Alex Goodrich). Costard is punished. And then Don Armado confesses his own love for Jaquenetta to his page, Moth. Armado writes a letter to Jaquenetta and asks Costard to take it to her, an obvious mistake.
Suddenly, The Princess of France (the gracious Jennie Greenberry) and her ladies Maria (Jennifer Latimore), Katherine (Leryn Turlington), and Rosaline (the sharp and excellent Laura Rook) arrive, wishing to speak to the King regarding the cession of Aquitaine. Because of the decree, they are not allowed into the court and must camp outside. Words are bandied. The King visits the Princess and her ladies at their camp. The King falls in love with the Princess and his friends with her ladies. Berowne, who has met Rosaline before, gives Costard a letter to deliver to her. Costard switches it with Don Armado’s letter for Jaquenetta. Realizing something is wrong, Jaquenetta takes the letter to two local scholars, Holofernes (played in grand pompous style by David Lively, who is something of a cross between Benjamin Franklin and an Oxford Don) and Sir Nathaniel, a country squire with pretentions of intellectualism, played with just the right inferiority complex by Greg Vinkler. They realize Berowne wrote the letter and has forsworn his oath. They rush off to tell the King of the transgression.
In a somewhat tiresome scene, The King and all his friends come to reveal the letters and poetry they’ve written to the objects of their affection. Jaquenetta and Costard enter with Berowne’s letter and accuse him of treason. He confesses to breaking his oath, but gets the others to agree that love is the only true study worthy of mankind. They arrange to have Holofernes, Costard, Moth and Don Armado create a pageant of the Nine Worthies to entertain the ladies later and the country folk rush off to prepare it. Each lord sends the object of his affections a token to wear.
But because the ladies know about their oaths, the men can’t confess their feelings or prove themselves oath-breakers. So, in one of the weirdest ideas for disguises ever, they dress up as Russians to court the ladies.
The Queen’s servant Boyet, (the wonderfully caustic James Newcomb) having overheard their planning, has the ladies switch tokens and don masks. The men court the wrong ones because I guess you can’t tell girls apart without jewelry. The ladies get a great many clever lines here and deliver them splendidly. The fact that the women are every bit as clever as the men in this play is one of the best parts about it, and this ensemble makes the most of what they’re given.
When the lords return as themselves, the ladies taunt them and show how they courted the wrong ones. Impressed by the ladies’ wit, the men apologize, and then they watch Holofernes, Sir Nathaniel, Costard, Moth, and Don Armado present the Nine Worthies and the comedy of humiliation ensues. The four lords and the ladies’ courtier Boyet heckle the play and humiliate the lower class characters. To the point that Sir Nathaniel can barely get through it out of shyness and Holofernes forgets his lines from the cruelty. Even the child, Moth, isn’t spared. I guess I’m enough of a proletarian, myself, that watching the ultra-wealthy abuse the poor for amusement isn’t funny to me. I thought the actors portraying the lower-class characters here did an amazing job of bringing true pain and pathos to their parts. You felt the injustice of it even though Holofernes truly is a pompous bore.
Don Armado and Costard almost get in a fight when Costard reveals mid-pageant that Jacquenetta is pregnant with Don Armado’s child.
Suddenly, a courier arrives with news that the Princess’s father has died. She is now Queen. She and her ladies make the men promise to wait for a year and a day before they come courting, to prove their love is lasting and to mourn the king. Don Armado promises the same to Jaquenetta. The low characters then sing the song “The Cuckoo and The Owl” and the play ends.
It’s a weird ending to a weird play, but don’t let that stop you from attending, because some of these performances are just masterful and the rest is mostly charming. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, too, mostly courtesy of Allen Gilmore as Don Armando and Alex Goodrich as clever bumpkin Costard. A word about Aaron Lamm as Moth here as well. It is remarkable to see such a young actor float so effortlessly through Shakespeare’s language, but Lamm does and is impish and charming as could be wished.
It’s not Shakespeare’s best play, but this cast is everything you could hope for in delivering it. It’s a highly enjoyable night of theatre to be certain. It runs through March 26th. Tickets are available at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Website.
Photos by Liz Lauren and public domain. The Swing by John-Honore Fragonard resides in the Wallace Collection in London.