Is there anything left that can just make people laugh? It seems like a crazy question to ask in our media-saturated, technology-dependent world. But in 2017, it seems that even the most formerly reliable sources of escapism have betrayed us. Comedians on late-night talk shows report on the President’s latest debacles in depressing detail. Twitter feeds alternate between righteous rage and vitriolic trolling. Pop stars compete to see who can be the most “woke.”
Maybe, then, it is best to look to the past to find pure entertainment. During the U of U Theatre Department’s production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, I found the exact escapism I was looking for. Sure, Shakespeare’s work has (unfairly) garnered a reputation as stuffy fare for elites. And maybe the complicated language makes it difficult to turn your brain off at the door. But this production, directed by Teri McMahon, is refreshing in its refusal to not take anything too seriously.
The play details the adventures of the King of Navarre and his three aristocratic friends. The four men take an oath to spend three years studying without the company of women. This oath is immediately complicated, however, by the arrival of a Princess and her three beautiful, witty friends. Their presence sets of a series of comic misunderstandings, forbidden romances, and, most importantly, some of Shakespeare’s most clever wordplay.
The silly and occasionally convoluted plot is mostly an excuse for comic set pieces, and McMahon’s direction is not above some good slapstick. The final scene before intermission is a clear highlight, as characters resort to increasingly ridiculous hiding places to avoid awkward revelations. And the production contains several over-the-top performances, especially from show stopper Ryan Gondo as Don Antonio and Call Vande Veegaete as Costard. But this production also puts clear focus on the language itself, emphasizing the script’s abundant wit and wordplay. In the intimate space of Studio 115, the actors give natural, fluid performances. They manage to entertain even when not aiming for big laughs through realistic, lived-in character work.
For the most part, this production does not strive to radically reinterpret the text or present a new vision for the play. However, in a major departure, one of the lords, Berowne, is played by a woman. This move does not alter the plot, and the only change to the text is an addition of female pronouns. This casting decision ultimately produces mixed results. On the one hand, Isabella Reeder’s performance as Berowne is one of the show’s best. Reeder has a natural charisma on stage, and her chemistry with the rest of the cast often carries the play. Her best moments are a solid argument for gender-blind casting: a good performance is a good performance, and Reeder inhibits her character with aplomb.
However, on a thematic level, the implications of the casting become problematic. Gender relationships are central to the plot of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. Many scenes in the play separate male and female characters, examining their interactions and relationships with each other. McMahon’s casting decision, then, seems to change the very core of these moments. Too often, Berowne’s gender feels like an awkward footnote. Her presence attempts to subvert the play’s themes, but instead it just obscures them.
The casting is one of the several flaws of this production. Certain staging choices were confusing visually, blocking the view of many audience members to important actions onstage. Furthermore, the pacing of the play often dragged. After intermission, the play’s more somber moments struggled to capture audience member’s attention, and trimming fifteen minutes off the runtime could have tightened the entire production. However, as a whole, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is a charming, likable production, presented with quiet confidence. If you are looking to forget a troubling present, consider letting these actors take you 400 years into the past.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” will be performed October 26-29 at 7:30pm, with matinees at 2:00pm on October 28 and 29. Performances are at Studio 115, and tickets are free with a U of U student ID.