By William Shakespeare
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
At the Publick Theatre
Christian A. Herter Park, Boston Through July 27th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Love's Labour's Lost is not generally a favorite among Shakespeare's comedies, but it is one of mine. I saw a magical production when I was young enough to think of the opposite sex as like foreigners, citizens of a strange though neighboring land where the rules and customs were very odd--- yet old enough to begin to find these strangers inexplicably attractive. Like King Ferdinand of Navarre and his friends, my friends and I swore that we would never make fools of ourselves over THEM. Shakespeare's verse was studded with mysterious, glittering words that I had never heard before, words that seemed to hold the secrets of the whole new range of experience connected with these alien opposite beings: romantic, precious, fantastical, bawdy --- the Shakespearean couples bandied words across the sexual divide in much the same way as our gang teased their gang across the playground at recess. Except that at the court of Navarre, all the words -- whether I understood them or not -- were perfect.

The Publick Theatre's director, Spiro Veloudos, has decided to place the court of Navarre in Edwardian England, and scenic genius Janie E. Fliegel has provided Veloudos with a turn of the century merry-go-round set sporting rampant carousel horses for the couples' merry courtship chase. Yet, magically lit by Yael Lubetzky, the set is somehow at the same time the lush green lawn of a country estate, perfect for croquet or cricket, with archways and arching branches blending into the Publick's own outdoor setting of beautiful Herter Park on the bank of the Charles River. It is a wonderful set, the best I have seen at the Publick, and the Edwardian costumes by Jana Durland Howland seem a good choice, in that they look comfortable and elegant on modern actors and yet have a chance of conveying to an audience trained by PBS's Masterpiece Theatre the so-important class distinctions Americans often have trouble detecting.

At the beginning of the play the young King of Navarre (Neil McGarry) and his friends Berowne ( Scott Harrison) , Longaville (Jared Voss) , and Dumaine (Matthew Amory) , all swear to devote themselves to rigorous study for a period of three years: fasting, doing without sleep, abjuring the company of temptation in the form of woman. Indeed, no woman will be allowed within the court of Navarre, which will be single-sexed and celibate as the colleges at Oxford were intended to be. This oath seems a bit less serious than it might, taken as it is by four young noblemen togged out in matching flannels like members of their college's cricket team on tour. And sure enough, no sooner are the four friends sworn than along comes the Princess of France (Chandra Pieragostini) to negotiate a treaty concerning Aquitaine. And sure enough, the Princess brings along with her the exact number of beauties required to tempt Navarre's team: her ladies Rosaline ( Dee Nelson) , Maria ( Jennifer Lampros-Valentine), and Katharine (Valerie Madden ). It takes the guys about forty seconds to decide to ditch their vows, but each must still worry about the razzing of the other guys, and about whether "his" lady will trust the words of a man who has just broken an oath that ought to be as binding as the vow he'll make his mate. The men must labour mightily to win, because although their ladies are willing to tease, and play the courtship game, they are also determined to use their sharpest wit to cut their suitors down to size and prevent lasting wounds being inflicted on their own hearts. The Navarre gang's reputation is well known.

The ladies are by nature kinder than their noble gentlemen, as is clear by the contrasting way the two groups treat the well-intentioned amateurs who attempt to entertain them with a pageant in the last act. But these ladies won't allow themselves to be warm or vulnerable. If Nelson's Rosaline indeed has a trace of the wantonness Berowne accuses her of, it is perfectly hidden beneath a priggish mask. The Princess is almost pure intelligence: not cold, but with her passions keeping well to the rear of her good judgment. All the ladies, as well, are brighter than their gentlemen -- they can tell them apart even when they are disguised, which is more than the men can do for them -- and to be honest, more than I could do. The cast -- the entire cast-- is probably the most consistently skilled ever to appear in the Publick's Shakespeare, so no one stands out for good or ill that way. All the nobles speak well, but within a narrow vocal range and with not quite enough projection for the size of the theatre. Some of the numerous sight-gags, too, interfere with the clarity of the lines, and with the actors' efforts to put an individual stamp on the peas-in-a-prolix -pod aristocrats. So you really need a program to tell the players.

While the four main couples maneuver in the social stratosphere, two sub-plots flourish in the classes below. The first concerns one Don Adriano de Armado (Frank Dixon), an impoverished Spanish nobleman addicted to elegant ruffles, euphemistic flourishes and Quixotic attitudes -- which neither his purse nor his wit nor his command of the nuances of the English language can quite support. Don Armado is poetically in love with a simple country wench, Jaquenetta (Alisun Armstrong). Armado rhapsodizes on his sufferings with the help of his page, Moth, who can run verbal rings around him; but Armado is so in love with ornamental language that he encourages Moth to humiliate as well as instruct and support his master, taking pleasure in the cleverness with which the child complies. The relationship between these two is one of my favorite things in the script, but it misses fire here. Moth (Traci L. Crouch), while adorably cute and talented, has a high wee voice and is nearly inaudible towards the rear of the theatre. Frank Dixon, whom I thought excellent as the irascible malapropping Frenchman Dr. Caius in last season's "Merry Wives", is playing that same character over again. A mistake, I think: Armado is more likely to swish than swash, and as a Spaniard he has a little lisp, not the explosive bombast with which Dixon obscures his lines. Costumed in impeccable formal dress of dove gray, with top hat and air-slashing cane, the actor gives out signals of a temperament suitably extravagant but far different from that of the wistful, purse-pinched, supersensitive, sweetly melancholy Armado.

Bob Jolly produces trumpet tones and clipped consonants for his blunt sour French courtier Boyet -- quite an unexpected interpretation of what is usually an ingratiating character, but one that works. Job Emerson supplies ingratiation enough with his schoolmaster Holofernes, and is so clear in his diction and in all his intentions that even his lines in Latin got laughs. Clifford M. Allen's Sir Nathaniel the curate is also clear and strong. The pair of them created for subplot two a cozy and benevolent little world where pedantry rules but ordinary good nature is prized, also.

Geoff Burns's Dull the constable (outfitted as the familiar London Bobby) is a mere sketch, but a vivid one. Steve Rotolo, a baggy-pants bumpkin as Costard, is a clown of the highest Shakespearean order, never sacrificing sense to shtick, and a pleasure every minute he is on stage.

Most all -- and I mean all, more of the text than I have ever heard before is performed at the Publick -- of this "Love's Labour" is pleasure, and because the sharp shock of its ending is prepared and given enough emotional weight, there is pleasure in the truth of that, too. Still, even though Veloudos' production clocks at three hours, I would beg the director to add a few minutes more and restore the musical reconciliation of Shakespeare's two-song ending. Spring's lyric cuckoo and winter's lowly owl tie all together: whether for "my lady", or for "Joan", love comes when it comes; in due season.