Can one trust a man when he pledges to a woman his promise of long-term fidelity?
That is one of the themes in William Shakespeare’s unusual comedy “Love’s Labors Lost,” currently running in a visually exciting, but otherwise somewhat hit-and-miss production, as California Shakespeare Festival’s final outdoor summer offering at Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.
“Love’s Labors Lost” is a comedy about four enthusiastic young noblemen who make a pact to live in celibate seclusion for three years to pursue the study of philosophy so they can understand the deepest mysteries of life.
However, when four French noblewomen suddenly show up on a political errand, the men make a complete one hundred and eighty degree reversal, fall in love with the women, and decide instead to woo love partners with the same enthusiasm they recently expressed for their celibate philosophical search.
In many ways, Shakespeare’s play is more interesting in its conception than its execution. “Love’s Labors Lost” is one of those works credited to Shakespeare that feels like writers other than Shakespeare were involved in the creation of the material, making for hot and cold spots in the script.
Similarly, director Lisa Peterson’s production has hot and cold spots. She has brought to the production an exciting concept and look – staging it in the 1920’s with a jazz and flappers feel – but the strength of the acting varies, and so does the chemistry among the performers.
“Love’s Labors Lost” contains some of Shakespeare’s classic comedy bits. The unmasking of the four men, for example, occurs when secret love letters are discovered, and their non-celibate tendencies are exposed.
Untypically for Shakespeare, this comedy does not end in marriage. As the end of the play moves inexorably towards a four-couple wedding, the father of one of the women dies and the celebration is dampened.
The four men then pledge to wait a year until the four women have returned from mourning.
In the context of the speed with which the four men earlier abandoned their celibate pledges, should we believe their new pledges of fidelity? This is one of the questions the play poses.
Several of the most interesting characters in “Love’s Labors Lost” are common folk, in explicit contrast to the eight nobles. Among them, the “rustic” Costard (Colman Domingo) and the Spanish knight Armando (Gerald Hiken) get caught up in a bawdy sex triangle with dairymaid Jaquenetta (Emily Ackerman). The directness of these three in sexual matters contrasts with the hypocrisy of the nobility.
Peterson’s staging has its pluses and minuses. In her vigorous and physical production, the madcap zaniness never quite jells. Often the production tries hard, but simply is not very funny. There is fire in the glances between only one of the four noble couples – Berowne (Jonathan Haugen) and Rosaline (Florencia Lozano) – but not in interactions of the other three couples.
Except for the play’s finale, the scenes in which the eight lovers appear together for romance are oddly bland. Nancy Carlin, although she has some good technical acting skills, is an unpowerful presence as the Princess of France, the ringleader of the four noblewomen.
L. Peter Callender is a fascinating and powerful actor. As King of Navarre, the ringleader of the four noblemen, he has distinctive moments early on organizing the philosophical retreat, but his romance with Carlin’s French Princess lacks fire.
Gerald Hiken blows hot and cold as buffoonish Spanish knight Armando. He has some funny moments in the play’s second half, but his opening work gets swallowed up by the energy he puts into his Spanish accent.
On the positive side, Julian-Lopez Morillas turns in one of the evening’s funniest performances as schoolmaster and buffoonish intellectual snob Holofernes. This is a man who uses language and philosophy in extreme poses and is out of touch with reality. In a wonderful piece of casting, Julie Eccles plays Boyet, the male chaperone to the four French women. She is rakish, loose and poly-sexual.
Dirty joke-cracking Rosaline (Florencia Lozano) is the strongest of the four noblewomen, and the only one with a distinctive presence.
There is a strong musical end to the show. Its final scenes are among its best. Designer Kate Edmunds’ spectacular set, which includes a hill on the stage covered with live grass, trees and flowers, blending back towards the actual open hillside behind the theater, is one of the most spectacular sets I’ve ever seen.
Meg Neville has cooked up some wonderful 1920s costumes. Gina Leishman composed original music for the play’s many songs. There is a band on stage for most of the evening.
“Love’s Labors Lost” is about weighing the merits of philosophical intellectual pursuit, versus the experience of love. Berowne, probably echoing Shakespeare’s view, concludes that it is from women that men can learn the real meaning of life.
It is a good idea for a play, but neither in Shakespeare’s script, nor in the production, does the examination of the idea equal the merit of the thesis.
“Love’s Labors Lost,” presented by California Shakespeare Festival at Bruns Amphitheater, Highway 24, Orinda, Tuesday through Sunday, through Sept. 23. Call 548-9666, or visit the website (www.calshakes.org). Dress warmly.