“Love’s Labor’s Lost” is one of William Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and as the Greenville Shakespeare Company’s new Summer Shakespeare production deliciously proves, one of his most poetic, capricious and downright sophisticated plays.
Directed by GSC founder Jeffrey Stegall, who is a Bard authority appearing in 30 Shakespeare roles over the last 30 years, the troupe in this version at the Bob Jones University Performance Hall excels in underscoring the playwright’s ingenuous wordplay and wit with a naturalistic and confident style that would not be found in less capable hands.
Like typical Shakespeare works, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is filled with aristocracy and in this instance, French and Spanish: King Ferdinand of Navarre (a hilarious Brad Payne) with his noble companions Longaville (Matthew Quattlebaum), Dumain (Josh Privett) and Berowne, played by GSC newcomer John Michael Cox in a real breakout performance that demonstrates both command of the material and comic timing.
They all take a vow of intermittent fasting and abstinence of women for three years to focus on their studies, banning any females within one mile of the castle.
Meanwhile, the Princess of France (Annette Pait in a formidable and frisky turn) and her three ladies-in-waiting (GSC regular Lindsay Morgan as Rosaline, Jessica MacQuarrie as Maria and Autumn Privett as Katharine) and their attendant Boyet (Jason Houtz) arrive to collect payment on a loan, but due to the royal decree, are forced to camp on the outskirts of the kingdom.
Then, there are Shakespeare’s usual court fools and moronic denizens and this story is bursting with them: the clown Costard, played by crack-up delight Ben Nicholas who wears his red nose and T-shirt with “CLOWN” emblazoned on it; his tryst “partner” and country wench Jaquenetta (Anna Brown in a Miley “twerking” Cyrus hairdo); Constable Anthony Dull (Cameron Smith); and school mistress Holofemia (Meg Jones).
Lastly, there is another canon of Shakespeare comedies: the wealthy, unattractive and gullible suitor Don Armado, as displayed by Stegall with hapless charm and utter flamboyance.
He transforms from ticket-taker and front door host to the fantastical Spaniard in a Musketeer hat with rainbow feathers, bullfighter vest and gypsy pants covered with 10 yards of teal tassels. He is in the play to entertain the King and the audience and elicits laughs and clever Flamenco musical cues every time he makes an entrance.
As Don Armado, Stegall is quite illustrious and more “Zorro the Gay Blade” than dashing swashbuckler when he flashes his sword.
And as is his “tender juvenile” page Moth, Jaime Riedy is a hoot as he cowers under his master’s commands, all the while replete in preppy pastels and bowtie as if he just stepped right out of Megan Trainer’s “All About That Bass” video.
The plot twists and devices in Renaissance comedies are almost stock conventions: lots of love sonnets (some of the Bard’s best iambic pentameter, in fact), misappropriated letters, disguises, impish deceptions, and a play within a play. Here we are treated to “The Nine Worthies.”
The splendor of mounting a Shakespeare work is deciding how to visually adapt a 420-year-old play and make it look fresh and timely and how many anachronistic elements to employ.
Stegall teaches set and costume design at BJU – several cast members have trained there as well – and his experience manifests in a beguiling and unilateral design scheme. Nowhere is this more striking than in his costumes, with Austin Phillips assisting.
All of the royals are in white. The King wears a white linen suit (a la South Beach meets “Fantasy Island”) and Boyet is dressed in a safari hat and shorts as he carries his ladies’ lily-white modern luggage.
However, later the regal characters do get splashes of color through accessories. The ladies wear teal scarves and the Princess even conceals herself with a scarf around her head and dark sunglasses.
And the men wear teal ascots and cravats and bad fake mustaches when they pretend to be the “Frozen Muscovites,” portrayed here as Russian mafia types in white fedoras and sunglasses. Payne is marvelous as the king disguised as the “Don” when he mimics a trimmer Marlon “Vito Corleone” Brando with a Putin accent.
Conversely, all of the clowns are clad in vibrant colors and most walk in Converse high-tops: lots of peach, orange, turquoise, and loads of clown rouge by hair and make-up artist Meg Jones.
The only exception is the messenger Maracade (double cast with Paul Michael Garrison and Philip Eoute) who arrives in all black to deliver the news of the French King’s death.
The BJU Performance Hall has arena-style raised seating on all four sides of the floor stage, so there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
The sparse set (also by Stegall) is a simple, bordered painted floor with symmetrical painted circles in the center and outer edges. Four plaster garden benches anchor the stage as do the aisles that double as entrances and exits for the actors.
Ron Pyle uses very subtle mood lighting for most of the first act with soft reds and blues that complement the circles on the painted floor. The lighting gets very interesting in the second act as four hanging bare bulbs are covered with orange Japanese paper lanterns and projections spin around the floor to signify the passing of the zodiac signs, i.e. one year.
Peter Anglea uses many sound effect zingers throughout the show and, in addition to the aforementioned flamenco bits, there’s a spoof of “That’s Amore.” And props designer Elizabeth Nelson gives us three-foot firework rockets, latex gloves and snorkeling gear among other contemporary touches to ponder.
The lighting and sound elements all come together with big return in the story’s resolution and grand finale in a boisterous mash up of Renaissance and modern music and dance (Sharon Murry’s choreography). I won’t give the ending away, but let’s just say it ends with a big bang.
Shakespeare is not for the fainthearted. The 21st century viewer is taxed not only with some internal translation from Old English but also with deciphering some of the dated allusions that may not have the same meaning today.
But the rich use of innuendo in “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is quite contemporary as the men attempt to quash their hearts and libidos. The women too flirt, tease and muse about love, but it is the women who hold all the cards here and “withhold,” leaving the males to take a year-long figurative cold shower.
And this enlightened Summer Shakespeare audience laughed in all the right moments, not just at the many zany slapstick bits, but with the stimulating and amusing wit of the world’s greatest playwright.
Shows are Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 7:30 p.m. through July 20 at the Performance Hall at Bob Jones University, 1700 Wade Hampton Blvd. Tickets are $7-8 and available at summershakespeare.org
Enter the side gate directly across from Carolina Fabric on Hwy 291, you should take an IMMEDIATE right and drive around behind the dormitories. The theatre is in the building on the right (close to 291). Parking is all along the building.