Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (18 August 2011)

Love’s Labour’s Lost has never been one of my favorite plays. For one thing, it’s full of tedious poetry. I understand the point of this; after all, it’s a play about four guys trying to woo four girls, and during Shakespeare’s time, the way you did that was by writing the girls poetry. If, as in this story, the point is that the guys aren’t doing a very good job wooing the girls, the poetry is particularly troublesome.

But I didn’t have trouble with the poetry this time. The words were fresh and accessible and only slightly tedious from time to time. Unfortunately, the words were one of the better parts of this production.

Some background on the plot: The story is about four guys who decide to swear off women (as well as food and sleep and other necessities) for three years so they can study. Of course, the first thing that happens after they make this vow is that four women come on the scene, and the guys promptly fall in love. We would expect no less.

While there was plenty of wooing in this production, I completely missed the studying that should have been looming over their heads. There was more of a feeling that the guys were joining a Mason-esque secret Guys-Only society, not committing to a life of Academia. This could have been due to the fact that the stage was set up entirely as the outside of the castle (where most of the action happens, especially the bit with the girls, since girls aren’t allowed in the castle), and we never see what’s supposedly going on inside the walls. It could also be due to the picket-fence look and the No Girls Allowed sign.

The girls eventually point out (after mocking the guys mercilessly) that they can’t trust the guys’ vows of love since in making them the guys have broken their vows to study. At this point in the play, we pause for a moment and think, “Was that what they were doing this whole time? I forgot.”

Perhaps we forgot because we were so distracted over the way-over-the-top flirtatiousness of the women and the puppy-dog-like drooling of the guys. Seriously, it was too much. I don’t want to be a prude, but when the play starts out with the guys swearing off women by burning girly magazines (not without one last drool), and later when one of the gifts to the girls is a pearl-studded bra (worn in very plain sight), not to mention when the girls change in their tent, very much back-lit and visible, it’s too much.

Let me digress from the particulars of this production for just one moment: This is the kind of thing that gives Shakespeare a bad name. “But Shakespeare is crude and bawdy,” a friend told me when I complained about it at intermission. Yes. There are crude and bawdy things in Shakespeare (but not this much!), but when that’s all we see of him, when we can’t see anything else in the production for the bawdiness of it, then we’re missing out on one of the greatest students of human nature ever to set pen to paper. When productions play up the crudeness, it detracts from the main point of the play. And, believe me, in this instance it was played up. The girls aren’t written as floozies.

On a happier note, I vastly enjoyed seeing Gregory Linington (seen in Julius Caesar playing Cassius) play Berowne, the wittiest and possibly most grounded of the guys. Berowne’s wry humor and eloquent speeches in praise of love are so different from Cassius’s intense hatred and act-first-think-much-later attitude, and yet Linington was utterly convincing in each part.

The scene where the four guys overhear each other soliloquizing about how much he is in love is a perennial favorite of mine… and they did it hysterically. Their use of the stage was great – Berowne hid in the “balcony” area while the Ferdinand practically sat in the front row of the audience.

The set was visually quite appealing, with lots of bright colors – from the Kelly green Astroturf that covered the stage and the purple flowers everywhere to the ridiculous amounts of red and pink flower-petal confetti that seemed to fall at the least provocation. The whole thing had a very early-60’s feel. Whether that was the inspiration for the “freer morals” of the characters or visa versa, I’m not sure, but they certainly went together.

The point of the play is that keeping your word is more important than anything else. That point came across decently at the end of the play, but it had to shout to be heard over the din of the crudeness. This was definitely one time when the bawdiness was completely gratuitous, and pretty much spoiled the show for me. Yet again, Love’s Labour’s Lost comes up as not a favorite, but this time for completely different reasons.

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