Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
William Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost is a work beset by contradictions. A comedy that ends with tragedy. A parable about the folly of formal education written with rigorous poetic formality. A poem that makes poets looks like desperate fools. And a love story with as many witty insults as heartfelt sonnets. Fortunately, the production currently running at the Quintessence Theatre Group is so much fun you will not have time to care. Director Alexander Burns focuses on the silly side of Shakespeare's early comedy and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable frolic through the thorny garden of love.
Love's Labor's Lost is the story of a king who convinces his friends to devote themselves to nothing but academic pursuits for three full years. In their quest for intellectual enlightenment the men plan to survive on minimal food and sleep, and to avoid the company of women entirely. The resolve and wit of all four men is tested when the fair and fiery princess of France comes to visit with her three fine ladies in tow.
When the lights come up on stage King Ferdinand (Lee Cortopassi) and his three friends (played by Ashton Carter, Christopher Garofalo, and John G. Williams) are congratulating themselves on their clever plan and swearing oaths to bind themselves and each other to the agreement. By having the men dress and act like preppy frat boys director Alexander Burns makes the whole setup surprisingly funny and instantly accessible. (I was immediately reminded of some graduate school friends who were forever swearing off dairy and planning perfect streaks of P90X.) Oscillating between serious and silly, this quartet is the heart of the production and they are excellent. Cortopassi is particularly compelling as the King, but it is Williams whose comic skill stands out most. A wry smile or a raised eyebrow is all he needs to make the audience chuckle.
Daniel Miller gives another stand out performance as Costard, a local fool whose simple wit acts as a foil to the would be intellectuals and academics surrounding him. Miller is charming and successfully draws out the humor from the dense text. Dana Kreitz is similarly successful as the satisfyingly snarky Lady Rosaline.
There are several amusing scenes where Rosaline, the Princess (Mattie Hawkinson), and the other ladies (Aneesa Neibauer, Kristin Devine) get to banter and show off their witty repartee. The exchanges here are funny and fast paced, but some of the text gets lost in the quick tempo. Burns' decision to sacrifice the clarity of the text in favor of keeping up the pace is understandable; Love's Labor's Lost is filled with mind-numbing vocabulary (Can you say "honorificabilitudinitatibus"?) and enough antiquated literary references to make the most experienced docent blush. Still, it is frustrating to have so much of Shakespeare's rich language pass by faster than it can be understood.
Fortunately, there is no compromising when it comes to the physical comedy. Kaki Burns' choreography is wonderfully silly and Ian Rose's fight scenes make for a wild rumpus. Christina Bullard's costumes are spot-on spectacular, from the crest on the King's flawlessly tailored three-piece suit to the little jewel dangling from the fuzzy red codpiece Don Armado (Josh Carpenter) wears at the end of the play.
Burns' production embraces the glaring contrasts of William Shakespeare's verbally dense yet thematically lighthearted work, and the result is a uniquely entertaining evening of theater. After all, how often can you see such sophisticated wordplay and a fuzzy red codpiece on one stage?
Love's Labor's Lost runs through April 21, 2017, at Quintessence Theatre Group's Sedgwick Theater, 7137Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA. To purchase tickets visit www.QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 215-987-4450.