When Love’s Labour’s Lost (LLL) opened its first major modern-era production on October 1, 1839 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, The Times of London critic summed up his impression as follows: “The play moves very heavily. The whole dialogue is but a string of brilliant conceits, which, if not delivered well are tedious and unintelligible.”
That warning still holds and undoubtedly explains why the show is rarely produced. In fact, Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) founders Robert and Lesley Currier waited almost 30 years before deciding that they had the right group of actors, designers and, above all, the right director, to risk making it the closing entry in their three-play 2017 summer schedule. Luckily, the gamble is paying off handsomely.
As far as the scholars can tell us, LLL was composed in the mid-1590s, when the 30-year-old Shakespeare was experimenting in an effort to find an artistic direction that he could follow in subsequent years. Two other plays from the same era—Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—combined brilliant wordplay (an obsession among the period’s cultural elite) with a compelling narrative to achieve long-lasting popularity. LLL is different. It was intended to entertain the aristocrats gathered at Queen Elizabeth I’s Inns at Court and was kind of a pastiche of clever dialogue, satirical references to then-famous people, lampoons of foreigners and puns—hundreds of them, some funny, some real groaners and some completely unfathomable by today’s audiences.
As for an overarching narrative, it’s so simple as to be virtually non-existent. Four young noblemen, including King Ferdinand, reluctantly swear a solemn oath to exclude women from their lives for three years, presumably to direct their energies to more serious endeavors without being distracted by the opposite sex. Next thing you know, four lovely young demoiselles sent by the king of France (including his daughter) arrive on a visit to cement relations between the two states. Within minutes of viewing these beauties, male resistance crumbles and each nobleman selects one of them to fall in love with. The offended ladies, however, are not about to forgive and forget, and so begins a familiar game of wooing as both sides seek advantage. Those, presumably, are “love’s labours,” but contrary to expectations, they culminate in an unexpected twist—the “lost” part of the title—which I won’t reveal except to say that the chances of anybody sticking to it range from slim to nil.
It’s up to the cast to fill the empty spaces with activity that at least keeps the audience engaged. Fortunately, Rob Clare, an English director/actor who has had a lengthy and fruitful relationship with MSC, carries with him a bag of tricks learned in the Mother Country that will keep the ship moving, provided he has the right actors. In this regard, MSC has assembled one of its strongest ensembles ever. All four of the male leads (Dean Linnard as the Navarre king, Walter Zarnowitz, Terrance Smith and Patrick Russell as his noble confreres) are outstanding in executing the type of physical comedy that Clare has set for them. Russell, in particular, moves about Forest Meadows’ capacious stage with a cat-like fluidity that is wonderful to watch.
The women are headed by Livia Gomes Demarchi as the French king’s daughter, whose job is to sort out the mess they encounter on their mission to Navarre. She is ably assisted by an entourage of Morgan Pavey, Eliza Boivin and Kathryn Smith-McGlynn.
As for production elements, Abra Berman’s colorful costumes, April George’s spot-on lighting and Billie Cox’s music design all contribute to a rewarding production of one of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays.
NOW PLAYING: Love’s Labour’s Lost runs through September 24 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael; 415/499-4488; marinshakespeare.org.