I hope Jennifer Uphoff has good time saying "I told you so" to the Harvard theater community. When Love's Labor's Lost was announced a few months back, the general reaction was disbelief that anyone would want to direct (much less act in, do tech for or pay money to go see) such a boring, word-heavy, plotless comedy--even if it was by Shakespeare. Most of Uphoff's original cast choices turned her down and some people were ghoulishly looking forward to a Mainstage disaster of legendary proportions.
This production may indeed go down in history, but it will be for the immense talent and imagination Uphoff shows as its director as well as for her courage in trusting her own instinct. In brilliant adaption, Uphoff has done what Marjorie Garber failed to do--convince us that Love's Labor's Lost is one of the best of Shakespeare's comedies. Not only is this show one of the best productions of Shakespeare seen at Harvard recently, it is also probably the best version of Love's Labor's Lost you are ever likely to see.
In Uphoff's conception, the King of Navarre and his friends are a group of prep school boys who want to be alone with their books and toys. They cavort on a fantastical playground that comes complete with a swing, a seesaw, a sandbox, a basketball hoop and, of course, an electric train set. The visiting Princess of France and her ladies in waiting find the men's actions, particularly their vow not to see women, highly amusing. Needless to say, the men immediately fall in love with the women and decide to forget their vows and begin wooing. Accompanied by every classic "oldies" love song imaginable, the story proceeds in a light-hearted fashion until disrupted by more serious events.
Part of the point of Love's Labor's Lost is that the upper class characters are obsessed with language. They'd rather talk than do. The play is full of obscure word play and lengthy speeches about nothing in particular that make reading it difficult and watching an uninspired production torture. It would also, in a play as complicated as this, be very easy to leave the less important scenes under directed.
Uphoff, however, has clearly gone over the text line by line and knows exactly what she is doing. Her actors actually seem to understand what they're saying and not a single double entendre is missed. While she has cut some speeches and reassigned others, it seems to have added to, not confused, the coherency of the plot.
Uphoff also ably maintains the balance between the literal Elizabethan text and the modern preppie kindergarten created in this production. For example, it makes perfect sense in this version that the two main courtiers, Berowne and Rosaline, would flirt while playing basketball and that the swain Costard would listen to a Walkman while he worked. The chaotic profusion of toys (everything from a Mr. Potato Head to a Rubiks Cube gets used in the course of the production) only heightens the artificiality of the perfect kingdom Navarre and his friends are trying to establish.
Although outranked by the King and the Princess, it is clearly Berowne and Rosaline who are at the center of Love's Labor's Lost. Michael Efron is almost perfect as Berowne, and he makes the character's alternate moods of ironic detachment and sincere (for him) emotion believable. Efron gives a smooth seductive performance reminiscent of the late great John Ducey '91. As Rosaline, Berowne's sometime lover, sometime persecutor. Emily Gardiner is a appropriately tough and saucy. Gardiner does not let her character slip into sentimentalism; this consistency is vital to making Rosaline's final actions understandable.
Their royal overlords are, well, over matched. Victoria Wei's Princess of France simpers far too much for very little reason. While Wei almost redeems herself with the strength of her final speeches, she seems to have little idea of the character until that point. While pleasantly cocky, Michael McCarthy's King is simply far too vague to ever have commanded allegiance from anyone.
On a brighter note are Jacob Broder as Costard and Francesca Delbanco as Boyet, the Princess' chamberlain. Costard is a classic Shakespearean clown who counteracts the pretentious nobility by his own plain speaking. Broder's enthusiasm is infectious and he gets more laughs than anyone else in the show. Broder even pulls off a rather contrived time warp joke that could easily have flopped. Boyet is one of the few mature characters in the play and Uphoff (who doubles as her own costume designer) stresses this by contrasting Boyet's formal suits with the other women's hippie attire. Delbanco does a terrific job of playing den mother and her character stands out more than it might in the hands of a lesser actor.
Among the rest of the solid supporting cast, Marian Berger gave an unusual but excellent performance as the pedantic Holofernes and Catherine Robe was absolutely perfect as the ditzy country wench Jaquenetta.
While this production of Love's Labor's Lost clearly has Uphoff's vision stamped all over it, credit should be given to set designers David McMahon and Chuck Admanis in helping her to realize it. The set pieces cleverly combine function and style, as with the life-size doll house and white picket fence that mark "the palace" into which no woman must enter.
Shakespeare has the women "camping" out in the forest and in this production they descend each night into a purple pup tent. The colors of the set are the colors of childhood--the bright yellow swing, the bright blue seesaw and the bright red trim on the house all add to the mood Uphoff is trying to convey.
Few student directors have the vision to attempt what Uphoff did, even fewer the talent and fortitude to succeed. "This production of Love's Labor's Lost is part of her final project for her special concentration. Give Uphoff an A+.
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