The last time I faced the agreeable task of opining on theatrical matters in a writerly fashion was a gaping decade ago. I was ten, I was wide-eyed, and I was smitten with Grendel. Or was it Grendel’s mother? That sector of my occluded past involves a stint in a British university town that had, and I hope still has, a theatre called the Apollo. My very proper and much beloved English girls’ school loaded us – a motley mass of blue-and-white uniformed pre-pubescents – onto “coaches” and ferried us into town for an adaptation of the struggles of that prototype of a tough guy, the Wolfie [Beowulf, yes, him]. At the intermission, one of my teachers, probably the well-named Rosamund Beale, registered my unrefined and gutsy joy at all the violent proceedings. Mrs. Beale would later ask me to write about the trip for one of those lovely, dinky newsletters that reassure parents that their children are not abused during the school day. I was very proud of my propaganda.
So the circumstances, for this, my second play review, are largely mixed up and metamorphosed: I’m not ten, I’m not in England, and Grendel and I are merely old-flames. But, just back from a charming dress rehearsal of Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m still very much wide-eyed. This time, perhaps not so much from the impacting spectacle of epic, but rather the needling and ever pertinent queries raised in one of the Bard’s first comedies. Are women really like books? How much is love based on appearances – or is ‘looker’-based-attraction really love? How to woo? How to win? And, in this stylish, intimate staging, of single-sex, but hardly sex-repressed, 1950s Old Nassau: whence can I acquire a pair of aviators that are that damn smoking?
But about the production, about the plot:
The play is a battle of study and love, a bantering between the sexes, an exercise on self-restraint and a questioning as to when self-restraint becomes unseasonable. Action opens on four noblemen forswearing all contact with women for three years. In this, the Princeton Shakespeare Company’s 1950s P-ton staging, four lusty undergrads decide to devote themselves to their studies at the all-male college, and pledge to stay away from feminine distraction. Idealistic idiots, naturally. For, as always seems to happen, unexpected and unexpectedly attractive visitors show up in town: in the strict reading, a French convoy to negotiate terms of past debts, here: a delegation of four witty noble-wenches from Vassar with attendant lord. What must ensue ensues. It is the manner of it – both the text and the particular close-to-home staging – that makes the unfolding engaging.
Sophomore and co-director Georgie Sherrington said of the production’s dramatic aims, “We wanted to choose a play that would apply directly to our audience – so we chose one about students and romance! Our goal was to make Shakespeare accessible, even if watching our play was the first time they encountered the Bard.” The staging does succeed in being imminently relatable – the characters, as college-somethings, will be near the ages of most of the audience, just as issues of amatory obsession as balanced against scholastic inquiry bear on a goodly number of current Princetonians. Sherrington’s directorial co-conspirator Jackie Bello commented succinctly: “Four guys swearing off girls to study – what could be more appropriate for Princeton what with our messed-up priorities?” Quite so, Ms. Bello.
Visual feel is rather Princeton too. Performed in the Mathey Common Room – a lovely space, if as a Matheyite, I may say so – nostalgic orange and black costuming and decor well conjure old-school Princeton. A banner proclaims the great class of 1955, the year of Ralph Nader (and John Fish, cheers to you), while typewriters and LPs, school books and composition books set the tenor of dorm life a half-century past. It’s all very clever, and for lovers of Princetoniana, the very artifacts of the staging will be a treat. Well done to Alissa Dubnicki on costumes and Dan Posen on props.
There are other treats too. The acting, if at times mixed in quality, is uniformly lively. The action itself begins with a dexterous leap – in adapted role of the young King/young Princetonian, Andy Brown, leading the Princeton pack, enters with gusto. His attending undergrads Longaville and Dumaine (Kent Kuran and Will Ellerbe) do well to give life to not-very fleshed out, in the written form, roles; the same could be said of Vassar-vixens Katherine and Maria (Callie Lefevre and Daria Hrabrov). Vassar Princess Kassi Jackson is convincing, especially in the last scene, and I will keystroke no more on that lest you are unfamiliar with the play. Doug Lavanture’s Boyer, attendant lord to the Princess, gets in some nice word enunciations…I remember something with a popping “P” (quite my style). Perhaps the hottest couple in all of this, Berowne (Jon Miller) and Rosaline (Chelsea Carter), have a bit of whatever it is they call it today: chemistry, a spark? Mr. Miller gives Berowne a moody depth I hadn’t seen when I read through the play; Ms. Carter makes for a downright sultry Rosaline.
And there’re the pleasantly batty subplots with definitely batty types; a professorial figure (well cast in Aaron Schneider), a curate (nice work with glistening fabric, Lovell Holder), an over-the-top Spanish knight (get there early, sit in the front row, and watch for Josh Black’s special floor trick), a winsome dairy maid/Princeton High gal (Eva Shapiro, in giggly accuracy), a suitor to that maid (the well-suspendered Dylan Alban) and a sort of Public safety dude (thanks for cracking down on drinking games, Tom Dollar). Special mention should go to Frosh Lauren Whitehead in her role as the impish Moth. Ms. Whitehead’s performance managed to develop a gentle puck: knowingly saucy while still distinctively naïve. She made good on a fantastic role, my favorite of the work – I rather wonder if the youthful Shakespeare identified with it as he wrote the play.
One particular scene also bears compliment. An archery outing/hunting excursion from the classical staging brilliantly transforms into a live-action (albeit ginger-ale) Beirut match. Wonderfully fun, and again, very very clever. Nice blocking. I also love the added 1950s interjections: Mr. Ellerbe’s “That’s swell” was quite swell itself; listen for the subtle and amusing McCarthyism reference.
Enough. It’s a romp. Go see it yourselves. I’m positive. True, my favorite Princeton theatrical experience (period) was last year’s production of the Chekhovian masterwork The Seagull. But such is to be expected: it’s a play about writers, and I like to pretend I’m a writer. But if not writers, everyone, surely, could imagine themselves lovers. And Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play for lovers. And thus a play for the people. Go. Support Shakespeare. Just go.