December 2, 2008

Shakespearean Mood Swings Confound Performance

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Love’s Labors Lost is one of Shakespeare’s wordiest and most intractable plays. Ostensibly a comedy — if we trust the original folio’s title page — it yet fails to end with any marriages. The play is more of a learned satire, pillorying debates from the Elizabethan period about issues of rhetoric, law, and questions of sovereignty. And yet again, as intellectual as all that sounds, Love’s Labors Lost has more penis jokes than one can shake a stick at. The play is essentially about words and about word play — about how there is no about when words come unhinged from what they seek to signify.
It’s as if Shakespeare, rather than the audience, has the last laugh, as the playwright points out the ludic emptiness within language itself. The play spins out bright confections of balderdash and bawdy, which can be countermanded as easily as one has wit to turn a pun. Ultimately, anything that the play’s poetry would promise must melt away as airily as a pedant’s quibble or a poppet’s quip until words, which form the very foundation of the state and its seething social body, can be grounded in some form of extra-linguistic action or violence.
No wonder, then, it is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” The Schwartz Center’s current production, directed by Bruce Levitt, does not attempt to resolve that problem — by emphasizing the play’s light-hearted comic frivolity, on the one hand, or its rhetoric’s brooding threat to institutional stability, on the other — so much as present the problem at the heart of the play in its most exacerbated terms.
The King (Ian Jones ’10) and three of his courtiers pledge to give up life’s luxuries, including women, so they can devote themselves to scholarship. But as the most skeptical of the courtiers, Berowne (Jeremy Flynn ’11), is quick to note, their pledge is rendered meaningless since the Princess of France (Mary Gilliam ’09) with her ladies-in-waiting are already on their way to the court. After their initial advances are rebuffed and they mutually catch each other attempting to violate their own oaths, the men decide to disguise themselves as a band of gypsy-like Russians in order to promise their love to the ladies.
The ladies catch wind of their plan and switch costumes, so that each man swears a true oath to a false lady, proving love only promises that its promises will be broken. Meanwhile, as a subplot, the pompous knight Don Armado competes with the country bumpkin Costard (Jeff Guyton) for the affection of the slut Jaquenetta (Julie Reed ’12) as the bookish sops Nathaniel (Ian Harkins ’11) and Holofernes (Sonja Lanzenjer) add bawdy commentary.
Up until this point, the production floats along in a frothy ebullience of double entendres and slapstick, the courtiers acting rugged and randy while the ladies giggle and gabble. J. G. Hertzler is particularly effective as the quixotic Don Armado, whose vapid and clumsy love-sonneteering appears as a performative cover for a crush on his voluble page-boy, Moth, played by the spritely Alex Viola ’10. It seems out of place when the quick-witted Rosaline, deftly acted by Katherine Karaus ’10 with both poise and comic timing, flashes a knife as Berowne pursues her a little too closely. In retrospect, however, it’s a feint at darker things to come.
The play’s energy takes a decisive turn when the characters of the subplot stage an inept burlesque-within-a-play about the classical theme of “The Nine Worthies,” traditional depictions of heroic kings. The performance of sovereignty breaks down, as does the frolic vigor of the production and the structure of the play itself. The burlesque seems doubly inept, however, since the parody of clumsy acting isn’t that funny, and the audience is left feeling a little uncomfortable. As if a deus ex machina in reverse, a messenger suddenly enters — right when the couples seem about to pair off — to deliver bad news.
The lighting design yawns a contusive purple, and we’re dizzily plunged into what seems to be tragic gloom, except that Moth discomfitingly halloos a comic refrain of “cuckoo” to the dull bookmen’s commonplaces, the pun on “cuckold” suggesting that women break their promises, too.
The production itself fails to keep its promise of being a light and witty divertisement, breaking expectations set in the first act to become alienating and macabre in the second. The rapid turns of phrase turn increasingly dark, insinuating that sex, violence and death are the borderlands where words must issue into deeds and things if they are not to remain formless nothings.
The production also seems estranging in that it neither attempts historical specificity to ground the deluge of references to the Elizabethan period, nor updates the court setting with a college’s giddy sorority girls and gaudy professors to poke fun at anything more immediate. The costumes, for example, are lavishly ahistorical, ranging from a Keystone Kop outfit to a Renaissance suit of armor.
The mercurial twists and unsatisfying emptiness that the production leaves one with, however, could well be the correlative to the specter of emptiness that haunts all language and theatricality.