'Love's Labour's Lost' revisited

Gordon Jones
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Theatre review

Perhaps the most elegant of the shows in the 18-year history of the Shakespeare By the Sea festival was the 2000 production of "Love's Labour's Lost," stylishly costumed and performed in the Bowring Park amphitheatre. This year they are taking another bite of the cherry, but in the Harbourside Park in downtown St. John's, a visually appealing performance site, with varied texture of grass, pavement, gravel, rocks to sit on, bushes to hide behind, and an upper level playing area to boot. Its drawbacks are proximity to Duckworth Street traffic and the shallowness of the principal playing area, which evokes chorus-line blocking, shoulder-to-shoulder, when more than a couple of characters hold the stage.

The King of Navarre and his retinue of gentlemen attendants (Longaville, Dumain, and contrarian Berowne) make a solemn vow to eschew the company of women and dedicate themselves to a course of study and contemplation. Their pledge is sorely tested when there arrives at the gates a conveniently equal number of female royalty and gentility, the Princess of France and her attendant gentlewomen (Katherine, Maria, and contrarian Rosaline).

Perhaps the most elegant of the shows in the 18-year history of the Shakespeare By the Sea festival was the 2000 production of "Love's Labour's Lost," stylishly costumed and performed in the Bowring Park amphitheatre. This year they are taking another bite of the cherry, but in the Harbourside Park in downtown St. John's, a visually appealing performance site, with varied texture of grass, pavement, gravel, rocks to sit on, bushes to hide behind, and an upper level playing area to boot. Its drawbacks are proximity to Duckworth Street traffic and the shallowness of the principal playing area, which evokes chorus-line blocking, shoulder-to-shoulder, when more than a couple of characters hold the stage.

The King of Navarre and his retinue of gentlemen attendants (Longaville, Dumain, and contrarian Berowne) make a solemn vow to eschew the company of women and dedicate themselves to a course of study and contemplation. Their pledge is sorely tested when there arrives at the gates a conveniently equal number of female royalty and gentility, the Princess of France and her attendant gentlewomen (Katherine, Maria, and contrarian Rosaline).

Since boys will be boys, there ensues - at first surreptitiously, then overtly - much rhyming and mooning, much flirting and courting, echoed and counterpointed on the sidelines by courtship rivalry for the hand of sluttish Jacquenetta between boastful Spanish soldier, Don Armado, and clownish Costard. The point-counterpoint patterns of courtship ritual culminate in Navarre and his courtiers disguising themselves as Russian sailors (pretending, none too successfully, to be rivals for the hands of the ladies), while the lower orders enact an absurdly incompetent parade of the Nine Worthies of the ancient world to the heckling of the watching courtiers.

But this is the only Shakespearean comedy that does not end in marriage.

The merry-go-round has to stop when the death of the Princess's offstage father is announced by the black-suited messenger, Mercade. The royal passing necessitates a year of mourning before the wooing can resume - although, on opening night, Mercade's announcement of the French King's demise was so sotto voce that if I had not been familiar with the play I would not have known why courtship had to be suspended. Did anyone else in the audience know, I wondered.

Mercade was not, incidentally, the only character to have severe audibility problems in the open air.

The first Shakespeare By the Sea production of "Love's Labour's Lost" was elegant and eloquent. This second rendition (by the same director) contains some bright contemporary novelties: an iPad for registering the avowal, characters texting, Princess and company arriving in a spanking-new red car, toting carry-on airline luggage, and flamboyantly costumed. On the other hand, no costuming budget appears to have been allocated to their male counterparts, who seem to have turned up in everyday rehearsal costume - casual pants and rumpled shirts.

Grizzle-haired Don Armado is attired in army fatigues and combat boots. Costard wears a black, sleeveless sports shirt (number 24). Constable Dull, wearing overalls, looks as though he has come to fix your furnace.

Pedantic schoolmaster Holofernes (played by a woman) is clad in checked jacket and checked pants, for no discernable reason, while supposedly rustic Jacquenetta is startlingly costumed and portrayed as a disco queen with attitude.

In this outre parade, there are, however, several fine individual and collective performances, notably the Princess and her sprightly retinue, consistently engaging and effervescent - Jill Kennedy, Lynn Panting, Sarah Dawn Macaulay, and Karin Saadi, Elizabethan precursors of the fast-talking, fashion-savvy gals in "Sex and the City."

Curly haired, light bearded Jeremiah Baker is a likeable, quick-witted Berowne, with clear articulation, intelligent interpretation, and good timing. He is well matched by his female sparring partner, Karin Saadi's sparkling Rosaline. These two alone are worth the price of admission.

The role of the Princess's aide-de-camp, Boyet, the intermediary between male and female camps, is a secondary role, but a necessary dramatic hinge. The part is handled with witty detachment by Norm Karlik - not quite "honey-tongued" Boyet, but reassuringly on top of business.

And one group scene is as well executed as it gets - the scene in which Berowne, Navarre, Longaville, and Dumain sequentially reveal their covert love to the audience, while being overheard in turn by their hidden predecessors, their oaths of continence betrayed by their rhyming missives of love. On the upper level, Berowne witnesses all, while below,

Dave Walsh's Navarre comically pops up and down from concealment behind bushes and rocks. However, as the production moves towards closure, style and interpretation become broader and coarser, culminating in what amounts to an outright send-up of the play in a well-choreographed, exuberant, but entirely incongruous whole-cast, disco-dance finale, featuring male-stripper routines paying homage to "The Full Monty."

The number got a round of applause from the audience. But, if anyone else in the audience knew what Mercade's message was, this ending might have seemed like dancing on the dead king's grave - not to mention Shakespeare's.

Directed for the second time by Jennifer Deon, the Shakespeare By The Sea production of "Love's Labour's Lost" continues its run in the Harbourside Park, playing on Sundays and Mondays until Aug. 9. Starting time is 6 p.m. Cash-only admission is $15, with reduced prices for seniors, students, children, and the underemployed.

The second Shakespeare production in this year's season is a newbie - Troilus and Cressida, which opens July 16, with a first-time director and on a new site for the company - Signal Hill.

Organizations: The King

Geographic location: Navarre, Harbourside Park, Bowring Park St. John's Duckworth Street France Signal Hill

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