You've got a play made up primarily of sparkling wordplay rather than warfare or pratfalls or plot. You're staging it in a large outdoor theater in the middle of summer. How do you propose to keep an audience engaged?
For "Love's Labor's Lost," which opened Sunday on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage, director Shana Cooper put the Bard's delightful dialogue, intricate rhyming and grandiose rhetoric into the context of a buddy movie, complete with a whipped-cream-pie fight. An Ashland native who graduated with a master's degree in directing from the Yale School of Drama and garnered numerous awards, Cooper moves all this silliness briskly along while keeping Shakespeare's poetry and prose crisp and clear.
The plot of "Love's Labor's Lost" is, to be generous, light on substance. Ferdinand, the King of Navarre (played as an earnest frat boy by Mark Bedard) proposes to his three frat boy friends (ahem, gentlemen of the court) that they retire from the world — that is, from all contact with women — to study philosophy for three years. Navarre will be famous for its learning, its probity, its exquisite manners. That Ferdinand's companions seem cut from the same cloth as the guys in "The Hangover" makes this boast a little thin.
His buddies, Berowne (Gregory Linington), Longaville (Ramiz Monsef) and Dumaine (John Tufts), are not keen to join an intellectual monastery, but they reluctantly sign on. Berowne is especially verbal with his doubts. Four 20-something guys and no women? This is definitely not going to work out.
No sooner than all sign the oath, someone tactlessly points out that the daughter of the King of France is on her way to Navarre on a diplomatic mission from her ailing father. She is going to have to be received at court. Oops.
In short order, the Princess arrives with three sorority sisters (aka her ladies in waiting). To say the least, they are not amused to learn they are barred from the palace. Also, as we are reminded by the Princess' sardonic courtier, Boyet (here more a dorm mother than a courtier and played by an almost smirking Robin Goodrin Nordli), that these lords and ladies have met and matched words before. The King of Navarre was very taken with the Princess (Kate Hurster). Rosaline (Stephanie Beatriz) has verbally sparred with Berowne. Katherine (Christine Albright) has caught the passionate Dumaine's eye. And the awkward Longaville was previously enchanted by Maria (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart).
The guys also remember these encounters and try various silly subterfuges to communicate with the women. When they are found out, it is up to Berowne to come up with ways to woo while, ostensibly, not breaking their vows.
Shakespeare has the usual subplot contrasting the lower classes with these aristocratic antics. There is the elaborate pedantry of the schoolmaster Holofernes (the delightful Michael Winters) and the slightly befuddled vicar Sir Nathaniel (Charles Robinson) — here played as stuffy clubmen — and the aptly named constable, Dull (Brad Whitmore).
Mix these with the brash Costard (Jonathan Haugen, channeling James Dean with more than a bit of the Fonz), the lovesick and verbose Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado (Jack Willis, strangely dressed as a 16th-century Spanish soldier), and Armado's sharp-tongued page Moth (Emily Sophia Knapp), and you get enough verbosity and stage business to almost lose the love story.
Christopher Acebo's romantic, flower-strewn set underscores the lighthearted mood of this production, as do Christal Weatherly's costumes and Paul James Prendergast's original music.
In spite of all the production fluff, though, Cooper ultimately does manage to get Shakespeare's point across. Of what use is intellect if we lose the human connection? What do we have when the head always trumps the heart?
In short, Cooper never totally sacrifices the play's elaborate language and subtle character development to the superimposed physical action. You could close your eyes and simply listen to this production of "Love's Labor's Lost" and have a marvelous evening. Or you could keep them open and enjoy both sound and sight.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.