Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s new production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is a like a breath of fresh air. Filled with sparkling performances, inventive staging, sets and costumes that enrich the narrative under beautiful lighting — all orchestrated by first time-ISF director Tyne Rafaeli.
This production was first created for Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre, an indoor venue run by ISF’s sister company Great Lakes Theater. I’m sure it was lovely there, but here in the Boise Foothills it opens up and sings. For theater (and Shakespeare geeks) this is a feast of ideas, metaphor (listen to the music) and visual delights.
The cast and creatives render the story with crystalline clarity — and that’s not easy to do with this play that is historically seen as a “problem,” with a tricky ending, topical jests (from Elizabethan days) and tricky thematic territory to navigate.
But there is no problem here. Rafaeli cuts through with laser-like precision into the heart of the play — a world in which each character seeks to know themselves. That discovery unlocks something about the play and problem solved.
The premise: Young Ferdinand, the King of Navarre (Jonathan Dryud), decrees that the he, his three buds, and all the men in his court should swear off women for three years for study and serious contemplation. They’re not even speak to women or there will be severe punishment for both.
Of course, he does this forgetting that the Princess of France (Erin Partin) and her three besties are due to arrive at any moment. When the women powerfully make the scene, sparks fly and the games begin.
It’s a truly beautiful production.
Kristen Robinson’s set drives the story in a really interesting way. It’s a library, with its tall stacks filled with books, busts of great thinkers and globes, yet it’s being encroached upon by nature. Green grass serves for carpet, the Idaho-blue sky peeks through. The shelves and ladders become a jungle gym as the men climb, hide, and toss books aside to get a better view of the ladies. As the night darkens, Rick Martin masterful lighting of the wispy grasses on the berm that abuts the stage, brings that landscape into the action.
Andrea Hood’s colorful costumes pop against the green grass and trumpet their wearers moods and intentions. The four women — Partin, Laura Wesh Berg (Rosaline), Christine Weber (Maria), Heather Thiry (Katherine) — enter wearing long, solid colored gowns and berets, ready to do battle. With the first parry they gain control of the situation and never let go.
Movement director Jason Paul Tate creates stage crosses and seeming mayhem at times to shake things up dynamically.
The men —Dryud, Christopher Tocco (Berowne), Nick Steen (Dumaine), Jeb Burris (Longaville) — wear buttoned down, natty 1960s-inspired three-piece suites that become disheveled as they literally loosen up and lose themselves in love.
These eight young actors have thrilling chemistry, especially Tocco and Berg, who are fiery as they deliver their delicious word play with verve. They duel with verbal poniards and each gets as good as they give, like their counterparts Beatrice and Benedick of “Much Ado,” a Shakespeare wrote four years after “Love’s Labor’s.”
In counterpoint, the romantic Spaniard Don Armado (David Anthony Smith) openly defies the edict and pines for the maid Jacquenetta (Maggie Kettering), assisted by his page Moth (Robyn Kerr). Smith brings a rich pathos to his character, who just wants to make himself worthy of a woman who belongs to a class beneath him. Smith and Kerr share a fantastic rapport, as the younger Moth tries to school his master in the art of appropriate wooing. Kerr with a warm Jamaican accent almost sings her part.
Throw in Costard, Jacquenetta’s lover (played by the hilarious Juan Rivera Lebron) and the mix is commplete. He is employed to “help” Armado and Berowe in their suits. Of course he serves his own interest so there’s switched letters, plot twists and acres of funny business.
The rest of the comedians are rounded out by slow-moving academics Nathaniel (M.A Taylor) and Holofernes (Dougfred Miller), and park ranger Anthony Dull (Joe Conley Golden). This is Golden’s return to the ISF stage after stepping down from producing the company’s epic Greenshows. This trio teams with precision timing.
The punctuation of the piece comes in the compact powerhouse of Chris Klopatek as Boyet, the princess’ attache. With a dynamic voice, he wields his character’s wit like a rapier.
There’s always a lesson of humanity in Shakespeare’s plays. This one might be boiled down to this: “To thine own self be true.”
Shakespeare’s complex comedy is a twist on the ancient Mesopotamian tale of “Gilgamesh.” In that epic, the character Enkidu, a wild man of the forest, is sent by the gods to rid King Gilgamesh of his hubris. Enkidu embodies the natural world and only becomes civilized after he is bedded by the woman Shamhat. Here, women also civilize the men, but it is by reminding them of their wilder natures.
The more we try to control our environment, the more we move away from our basic human nature, the more trouble we bring on ourselves. Often, it’s the thing we fear the most that becomes our greatest attribute when it’s understood. In this case, it’s the ability to love and love well.
‘Love’s Labor’s Lost’
8 p.m. Tuesday, June 7 and Wednesday, June 8 and dates through June 26, Idaho Shakespeare Festival Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. 7:30 p.m. Greenshows Wednesdays to Saturdays. $27-$45 ($13 for kids 6 to 17, free for 5 and younger on Family night), $20 students any night. 336-9221. IdahoShakespeare.org.