Spring is a season for love, but the four young men at the center of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” have squashed any hopes of that after they devote themselves to learning over wooing. However, they’re about to get schooled in love with the arrival of four French beauties.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” is not often performed, but in the hands of Folger Theatre director Vivienne Benesch and this vibrant cast, it’s a show worth discovering again (this play last appeared on Folger’s stage in 2002).
And the director didn’t have to go far to find inspiration for this retelling of one of Shakespeare’s early comedies. Scenic designer Lee Savage has reimagined the kingdom of Navarre as Folger Shakespeare Library’s own Paster Reading Room circa early 1930s, around the time it opened in Washington, D.C. The theater’s two permanent bulky wooden pillars blend in perfectly with the warm-toned staging, which also works in a double staircase and a hidden liquor cabinet. A bust of Shakespeare and a statue of Cupid are prominently displayed on bookshelves. The timing of the story also lends itself for some exquisite wardrobe choices, such as the dazzling beaded flapper dresses costume designer Tracy Christensen assigns the ladies for a second-act scene (the men are quite dashing, too, in their white suit jackets).
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” follows what happens when the King of Navarre (Joshua David Robinson) has his court swear off women for three years of study; one holdout, Berowne (Zachary Fine), has reservations at first, but eventually joins his bros and signs the decree. However, their plan is about to be derailed when the headstrong Princess of France (a radiant Amelia Pedlow) and her entourage roll into the town. As expected, each member of the king’s circle fancies someone in the other camp and struggles with keeping their oath, especially Berowne, who’s sweet on the witty Rosaline (Kelsey Rainwater).
It’s not only the nobles who are struck by Cupid’s bow in this super-charming Shakespearean rom-com. Don Armado (an enjoyably over-the-top Eric Hissom), a visiting soldier from Spain whose English is not the greatest, is wrecked by his love for the bubbly maid Jaquenetta (Tonya Beckman). These two are an absolute hoot to watch, along with Edmund Lewis as the handyman Costard, who botches up delivering love letters to Jaquenetta and Rosaline; and the excellent Louis Butelli as the loquacious scholar Holofernes.
One of the striking things with this Shakespeare work is the nonstop verbal jousting, which comes at you fast and furious, but this all-around terrific cast handles the challenge with aplomb. And the vivacious energy of the performers is infectious; you’ll find yourself smiling and laughing out loud almost until the unexpected ending.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” is mostly light and fun, but there are some truly poignant moments in the show. And who would have thought the merry, madcap lord Berowne could be so deep? Viewers first see him sheepishly coming late to the king’s opening speech and then disrupting it with a sneeze. By the end of the first act, in a brilliant performance, Fine demonstrates his comedic and dramatic prowess when, after shaming his companions for straying from their pact and writing love letters (when he, too, is guilty), he begins a lengthy and moving monologue about the joys of love.
This is a big-hearted production, which also weaves in a few fun musical numbers, including one featuring the men disguised as Russians in order to visit with the ladies.
With sparkling wordplay and exuberant performances from its fine cast, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is a delightful springtime treat.