IN EVEN THE BEST families, there are bound to be a few bucktoothed, cross eyed mutts. Among William Shakespeare's dramatic brood, Love's Labour's Lost is one of the runts of the litter an overlong, obscurely written, not too funny nerd of a play.
But one might not think so after seeing American Repertory Theatre's latest production Director Jerome Kilty has doctored this justly neglected work into a show which is equal parts brilliant inspiration and simpering mediocrity. Of course, brilliance will out. Lucky for the ARI.
For those wise enough never to have read Love's Labour's Lost, behold Shakespeare's least complicated plot: King Ferdinand of Navarre (Thomas Derrah) has secluded himself in a private retreat, where for three years he has vowed he and his three attendants shall lead a virtuous life (sans dames). But love will find a way, this time from a visit of state by the beauteous Princess of France (Cherry Jones) and her ladies-in-waiting. Quicker than you can say "voulez-vous coucher avec moi" the king and his nobleman have discarded their celibacy like last year's underwear, although each tries to maintain the appearance of manly indifference.
But this ain't All Well's That Ends Well; after every ones' hearts are tied for eternity, the fickle finger of dramatic fate (offstage) pushes the King of France off the ledge of mortality. Since the royal good time girl must needs become a regal career women, it's Cupid who gets the shaft; as No. 1 Courtier Berowne (Gregory Welch) exclaims woefully, "our wooing doth not end like an old play, Jack hath not Jill."
Even bad Shakespeare contains more nuggets of literary gold than half the premieres of a normal Broadway season Kilty started off well in taking a chainsaw to Shakespeare's text: the lopped off lines are not missed. He set the play in interwar England, the land of tea, croquet, and highly mannered living. But the questionable decisions start coming hard and fast.
Kilty chose to do double duty in this production; in addition to directing, he has also taken the part of the over-educated Spanish rogue, Don Armado. Most actors will attest that directing oneself is a big mistake; Woody Allen does it, but Allen is a genius. Kilty is not.
One can only hope that this is the reason Kilty allowed a ten-year-old child to play the role of Moth. Don Armado's precocious page. As Moth is a role comparable to Puck in A Midsummer's Night's Dream, it is not something one farms out to a tyro. Appearing in the same scene with a child is the trial death; an actor is either upstaged or dragged down. Though one hates to badmouth someone who doesn'v yet have a complete set of teeth, Jason Harvey is really bad. He decants iambic as if he had taken elocution lessons from Alfred Hitchcock, and he can barely be understood past the eighth row. When there are at least a half-dozen undergraduate actors and actresses at Harvard who could have pulled off the role, Kilty's choice is worse than a crime; it is a blunder.
ON THE upside, the director has discovered a comic sensibility of excess that could hold the seeds of a brilliant production. Kilty litters the stage with throwaways, sight gags (a very prominent Cherub's phallus is put to some inventive uses), and blatant two-dimensional parodies. Two pedants, Holofernes (Jeremy Geidt) and Sir Nathanid (Harry S. Murphy), converse while playing a hilariously dishonest game of croquet; the clownish Constable Dull (John Bottoms) runs his bike into a hedge; the Queen of France enters in a '37 Cadillac (What is behind the ART's fascination with getting vehicles on stage?). Most attempts to include dancing in Shakespeare look forced and clumsy, even though they were prominent in the original; apparently "movement coach" Bonnie Zimmering deserves the credit for helping the cast find their two right feet.
Throughout Love's Labour's Lost, the comic, rather than the romantic, leads pull this show through. Geidt has been around English departments long enough to pillory tweedy blusterers with disarming exaggeration. Murphy's lisping curate is straight out of Life of Brian; I waited all evening for him to say "Welease Woger!", but it never came. Rodney Hudson plays the chamberlain Boyet with liveried style and an infectious sense of fun. John Bottoms is anything but Dull as the pinch-cheeked idiot bobby, proving once again he may be the best thing going for the ART.
Ben Halley, Jr. should learn how to slur. His excruciatingly enunciated diction gets very tiring play after play, and seems inappropriate for the low comic role of Costard. The same self-indulgence that drove Kilty to play Don Armado marks his performance.
Of the eight romantics, Kilty grants only the men the opportunity to let go. During a scene in which the love-smitten Spaniards spy on each other mooning over their loved one's virtues, only Ben Evett crosses the line into the merely silly. The foursome fare much better disguised as dancing Cossacks, taking their roles a little less seriously. Thomas Derrah stuffs King Ferdinand's shirt full enough to make his vow seem like an everyday stunt. Jones, as the Princess, is unable to cut as distinctive a swath, and of her attendants, only Laurie Gallucio appears as a likely candidate for love at first sight.
In one of the ART's stronger seasons, the consistently superb sets have been the real standouts. Michael Yeargan, the set designer for the gorgeous King Stag, has created an elegant English courtyard, complete with gazebo and statuary, that Broadway would have had difficulty matching at twice the budget. It's a pity that the ART techies don't get their own curtain call for a season of amazing work; they deserve it more than a number of the actors who have appeared on their stages.
As the recent PBS production of Titus, Andronicus (a.k.a. the Elizabethan Chainsaw Massacre) showed, a gutsy director can turn even Shakespeare's faults into virtues. Had Kilty focused his attention on energizing Labour's silliness with some more madcap excess, a merely promising production might have grown into greatness. As this is Kilty's second shot at the play, maybe the third time will do the charm.