For sheer cozy brilliance, you just can’t beat director Vivienne Benesch’s idea to set Love’s Labor’s Lost (★★★) in 1930s Washington using the Folger’s own Paster Reading Room as Navarre’s Court. Not only was the Folger library first opened in the thirties, it was the era of the Screwball Comedy and all their barb-slinging, thoroughly independent heroines. What better moment in modern American history for a re-up of one of Shakespeare’s battles of the sexes?
And this production isn’t just a clever idea, it’s captured with complete and utter charm. Sure, it’s a ridiculously idealized reimagining, but how lovely to look in on such a rose-colored world where books are read and handled like treasures, the lighting is incandescent, and nothing can travel faster than a letter. It starts with scenic designer Lee Savage’s ingenious recreation of the reading room, in all its wood-paneled splendor, continues with Tracey Christensen’s cheerfully elegant costumes, and positively thrives through a wonderfully textured cast of characters so cleverly drawn.
This is an incredibly wordy, pun-filled play — even by Shakespeare’s standards — and at the hands of this superb cast and Benesch’s sense of timing, the verbal calisthenics fly like an unstoppable babbling brook, while the humor is by turns broad, edgy, and subtle. One minute a character takes flight in a hilarious monologue, the next, the ensemble is choreographed into a visual joke. Benesch simply couldn’t do a better job in marrying the play with an irrepressible sense of humor and joy. If we don’t catch every word or reference, we absolutely follow the rom-com plot in which the King of Navarre and his courtiers prove no match for the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting. At least until the intermission.
Unfortunately, all the mastery of the first half of the production never quite returns in the second. Uneven and far less subtle, it’s as if Benesch has left the helm. Without the pitch-perfect sensibility and jaunty, sophisticated momentum of the first half, it’s not that it’s actually bad, it’s just nowhere near as good.
There is no doubt that the final events of the play create a challenge. When their wooing of the women fails, the men conspire to arrive disguised as a band of Muscovites to wow the ladies. But the women turn the tables on the men, disguising themselves far more effectively (at least as these fictions go). When the jig is finally up, it’s time for a courtly entertainment which soon devolves into subplot chaos. It’s all brought to an abrupt end by the news that the princess’ father has died. The mood then — uncharacteristically for one of the Bard’s romps — turns solemn.
There might be no sure way of overcoming this tumble of events, but Benesch’s choice to broaden the comedy hurts more than it helps. The Muscovites are too brightly colored — garish in costume and performance alike. Their song and dance number might have worked if it was Three Stooges silly, but it’s just regular silly. The courtly entertainment then follows on too closely, clashes mightily in tone, and labors like self-indulgent vaudeville (save for Louis Butelli’s talents). No vibe, no matter how accomplished, can withstand such a beating. Playing (at least) the Muscovites small and amusing would have felt far more in keeping.
Still, it’s impossible not to get behind this production thanks to numerous stand-out performances. For sheer comic fabulousness, Eric Hissom seriously relishes his Don Armado, a Spanish visitor to the court, while Butelli’s librarian Holofernes is as hilarious as he is brilliantly delivered.
As the King of Navarre, Joshua David Robinson’s regal but unpretentious man is one hundred percent on-point, his language gorgeously melodic and convincing. As Berowne, Navarre’s most talkative courtier, Zachary Fine starts with a rather robotic energy, but evolves into immense verbosity, bringing much color, fun and expression. Playing her with an intelligent warmth, Amelia Pedlow’s Princess of France, just about avoids being too holier-than-thou, while Kelsey Rainwater brings an interesting edge to an impressively-drawn Rosaline, prime lady-in-waiting. In smaller roles, Megan Graves is a completely convincing Mote, while Edmund Lewis gives his working man Costard comic presence. Transforming seamlessly between the ditzy Jacquenetta and street-wise Boyet, Tonya Beckman shows impressive chops. The list goes on: everyone adds something here.
Thus, even with the travails of the second half, this is one of Shakespeare’s wildest wordy rides delivered through a wonderfully unique and evocative lens. It’s not perfection, but it’s pretty damn close.
Love’s Labor’s Lost runs through June 9 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE. Tickets are $42 to $79. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.