Free spirits, fine Shakespeare in ‘Labour’s’
LENOX — When Shakespeare & Company tackles a work by its namesake playwright, the result is often a satisfying blend of reverence and irreverence.
The cast’s delivery of the verse is usually characterized by a well-spoken clarity, even an expressive beauty, that gives full weight to the meaning of the words they’re reciting and the unrivaled genius of the man who wrote them.
With regard to the staging, though, this adventurous troupe doesn’t hesitate to have, and deliver, a bit of fun, cheerfully yanking Shakespeare’s plays into different eras, styles, and social contexts.
That tradition continues with Lisa Wolpe’s bouncy, free-spirited production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,’’ at the Tina Packer Playhouse through Sept. 1.
In this version of the Bard’s early comedy, set by Wolpe in the postwar 1940s, romantic mayhem is punctuated by banjo-playing, finger-snapping, and the singing of ’40s tunes like “You Always Hurt the One You Love.’’ There’s an uproarious dance sequence by a quartet of faux Russians that inevitably evokes the Marx Brothers. (Yes, I know Groucho and the boys did their best work in the 1930s, but still.)
Behind those fake beards and under those fur hats are the king of Navarre (Jason Asprey) and three noblemen, played by Mark Bedard, David Joseph, and Andy Talen. Their masquerade is one amusing twist in a labyrinthine story line that began with a solemn pledge by all four of them to abjure the company of women for three years and devote themselves to brow-furrowing study and the thinking of Great Thoughts. Junghyun Georgia Lee’s library-like, two-tiered set inside the Tina Packer Playhouse underscores their determination: A pair of massive bookshelves dominate the second level while, on the first level, somber oil portraits gaze out at us from dark wood panels.
That no-women-allowed edict starts to seem like a really bad idea once they get a gander at the lovely Princess of France (Brooke Parks), arriving in the kingdom with three equally comely ladies of the royal court — portrayed by Nafeesa Monroe, Kelly Galvin, and Kate Abbruzzese — whom the princess has brought with her.
As that noted Shakespearean Homer Simpson might say: “D’oh!’’ Time to look for loopholes. So each of the men sets about finding a way to woo the lady of his choice. Complications and misdirected missives and mask-wearing and general misunderstandings ensue, wrapped around a couple of subplots that feature broadly comic characters pursuing their own missions of the heart. As with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ and “Hamlet,’’ they are eventually called upon to perform a play-within-the-play.
If Wolpe’s production is loaded with sight gags and mugging by her fine cast, and it is, it’s probably designed to compensate for the challengingly convoluted plot and abstruse, all-over-the-map dialogue of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.’’ There’s a reason this play doesn’t get produced all that often.
Wolpe opts for no words at all in the first few dreamlike minutes of the production: an entrancing slow-motion scene of swordplay between a woman in a red dress and a trio of opponents. (The movement/dance choreographer is Susan Dibble.) Enacted before a man twitching restlessly in a chair, who turns out to be the king, the battle is a prelude to the verbal fencing to come — and to the fact that the women will prove more than a match for the men.
A standout among those combatants is Bedard’s very funny Berowne, vain and narcissistic but lovestruck nonetheless, and forever trying to enlist audience support for his furtive schemes. The audience enjoyed hissing Berowne at the performance I attended, which only seemed to encourage him. As his heart’s desire, Rosaline, Monroe cuts a stylish and witty figure. (Kudos to costume designer Govane Lohbauer for the ’40s-style dresses and hats, in an array of violet, pink, and light green.)
Vivid performances are also turned in by Paula Langton as Holofernes, a pedantic and windy schoolmaster whose attire evokes Cyndi Lauper during her glad-rags phase; Edgar Landa as Don Armado, a foppish traveler from Spain who fancies himself a swashbuckler; Michael F. Toomey as Costard, a clownish figure in a yellow-checked suit and muttonchops; and Ryan Winkles as a stolid, mustached constable who does his darndest to live up to his name, Dull. The production he’s in is anything but.