SAN DIEGO — The Old Globe's staging of "Love's Labor's Lost" proves that it is possible to fall in love with a production at first sight.
John Lee Beatty's scenic design transforms the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre into an elegantly verdant royal park. I haven't yet taken a vacation this summer, but the beauty of this aristocratic enclosure, an ideal setting for a romantic frolic, was as rejuvenating as a stroll through the manicured grounds of a European castle.
Kathleen Marshall, a director and Tony-winning choreographer who made her name with Broadway musicals (including blissful revivals of "Anything Goes," "The Pajama Game" and "Wonderful Town"), was an inspired choice to stage this most Elizabethan of Shakespearean comedies. Though bursting with chaotic silliness, the play has the formal patterning of a dance, and Marshall choreographs the comic action with lustrous panache.
"Love's Labor's Lost" is a tricky play to pull off today. The language can be arcane, and the literary satire is accessible to only a handful of Renaissance literature scholars. Yet the charming plot, the quick-wittedness of the characters and the agile handling of darkening tones make this one of the most loved of Shakespeare's less-popular works.
The play, as the title stipulates, flouts that most important rule of romantic comedy, the happy ending. "Our wooing doth not end like an old play: Jack hath not Jill," as the constantly japing, super-sophisticated Berowne says in the final act after being out-mocked by Rosaline, the woman he's plainly fallen in love with.
It's fun to imagine Shakespeare pitching this comedy to his company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men: "No sooner has Ferdinand, King of Navarre, taken an oath with his buddies to swear off women for three years, trading sensual pleasures for the life of the mind, than the Princess of France arrives with her train of nubile young ladies. Silly love games, along with a good deal of hypocrisy horseplay, ensue."
A merry entertainment, Will. How does it end?
"Just as Ferdinand and his courtiers are ready to discard their ruses and reveal their hearts, a messenger arrives with the news that the Princess' father has died. The ladies return to France for a year of mourning, promising the lords they will accept their tenders of affection if they undergo a 12-month period of penance for their gibing spirits."
No doubt the company asked to take a closer look at the script before giving this rising star playwright the green light. Young Shakespeare was undeniably talented, but boy, could he cast a pall on final act festivities!
The intrusion of death's messenger into this teasing romance poses no problem for contemporary audiences who have grown accustomed to comedies taking twisted turns. Harder to reanimate today is the antique comic business involving masquerades, rhyming repartee and a slew of supporting characters who seem to have sprung from a commedia dell'arte trunk.
But Marshall finds fresh life in this old material. Her cast for the most parts is exceptionally vivid, the hilarity emerging from character rather than coming at its expense.
Somewhere along the line, Stephen Spinella, forever to be remembered for his Tony-winning portrayal of Prior Walter in "Angels in America," became one of the country's most versatile classical actors. He brings flamboyant drollery to the part of the pedant Holofernes, breaking into Latin at every ill-judged opportunity and flipping his hair triumphantly after employing the adjective "thrasonical."
Patrick Kerr summons some wild-eyed Martin Short lunacy in his handling of Sir Nathaniel, the curate who always looks happily stunned by Holofernes' inscrutable erudition. Greg Hildreth is a delight as the clown Costard, a simpleton who's far too smart to renounce wine and women.
Daniel Petzold, one of the cast members from the Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre program, doesn't quite have the experience to maximize the effect of Moth's puncturing retorts. But he nonetheless jauntily acquits himself in the role of the page of Don Adriano De Armado, the Spanish braggart Triney Sandoval deliciously plays to the hilt.
But what about main cast? Marshall lets the lords rule the stage. Jonny Orsini's Ferdinand may be king but he runs with the pack. His charisma is great but so too is his skittish vulnerability. Kieran Campion's Berowne is like head boy at a boarding school, a natural wise guy but the one everyone rushes to when in a jam. Orsini and Campion collectively share the honors of leading lads.
I wish Marshall had foregrounded the female characters a bit more. As it is, Kevin Cahoon's Boyet, the lord attending the Princess on this embassy on behalf of her father, steals every scene he's in with his mincing mischief.
Shakespeare's men always seem to marry up, and there's no denying that the women in "Love's Labor's Lost" are far cleverer than their male counterparts. Rosaline is the sharpest of them all — at times too sharp for her own good. Some critics consider her a sketch for Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" and Rosalind in "As You Like It," though Pascale Armand (who received a Tony nomination this year for her performance in Danai Gurira's "Eclipsed") imbues her with an independent feistiness. Her ripostes can be ripping, but Armand suggests that Rosaline's comebacks are spoken more out of somber self-protection than cruelty.
Kristen Connolly majestically outlines the Princess' noble bearing but misses the poetry when it matters most. Two lines in Shakespeare never fail to bring tears to my eyes when I read them: Cordelia's "No cause, no cause" after Lear acknowledges his paternal wrongdoing and the Princess' "Dead, for my life!" when she anticipates the news the messenger brings about her ailing father.
Connolly pauses before the Princess' words but still fails to register their emotional resonance. She also doesn't quite convey the contemplative brilliance of the Princess' answer to Ferdinand, who hastily insists that she grant him her love before she departs: "A time methinks too short/To make a world-without-end bargain in."
The richness of Shakespeare's unique comic vision inheres in such intelligent lyricism. Fortunately, this graceful production captures more than enough of this challengingly frolicsome yet ultimately piercing play to win us over. The experience of this "Love's Labor's Lost" is as sweet as the swing that sways in and out of this scenically enchanting revival.
'Love's Labor's Lost'
Where: The Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1360 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: Schedule varies; ends Sept. 18
Tickets: Start at $29
Info: (619) 234-5623 or www.OldGlobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes