Love’s Labor’s Lost has held a mythical place in my memory for the past 25 years—in large part because it was the first Shakespearean play I saw produced professionally.
I was 13, and my family drove to Stratford, Canada, to take in three shows at the annual theater festival. Our docket included Romeo and Juliet and HMS Pinafore, but the show I was most excited about was Love’s Labor’s Lost. The plot line (as described in festival’s brochure) was so intriguing. Four friends (including a King) swear off women and all other pleasures of life for three years so they can isolate themselves in study… only to have four women (including the Princess of France) show up at their door on the first night of their pact.
I could hardly wait to be engulfed in this world of misunderstanding and temptation and sophistication while finally seeing for myself what all of this Shakespeare hype was about. I have a vivid memory of taking my seat next to my brother, striking up a conversation with the patron on my other side, looking down at the lush tree-filled scenery.
Then, sadly, the show started.
For the next three hours my brain was ratcheted back as forth as one confusing character after the next babbled about topics that rarely overlapped with the rich plot line the Stratford Festival’s brochure had promised me. My most vivid memory was finally giving up during a scene where all of the characters seemed to be talking at once and whispering to my brother, “What’s happening?” (My brother: “I’ll explain it later.” He never did.)
Fast forward to 2016. I discover that Chicago Shakespeare will be reviving Love’s Labor’s Lost as the winter play on their mainstage. Twenty-five years after the disaster in Ontario, I am again thrilled by the prospect of Love’s Labor’s Lost—but this time it’s personal. Now, as an adult, an English teacher, a veteran of more Shakespeare productions than I can count, I will finally redeem myself for this black hole in my Shakespeare canon. I took my seat just three rows from the stage.
Then, sadly, the show started.
To be fair, the opening scene is pretty good, and the closing scene of the first act is very good. In this production under the direction of Marti Maraden, King Ferndinand (John Tufts) and two of his followers take the stage wearing graduation gowns and mortar boards, an intriguing costuming choice that emphasizes their misguided devotion to study. Berowne (Nate Burger) runs onto the stage late and proceeds to express reservations about the King’s pact. Burger tinges his lines with a symmetry of sarcasm and arrogance that makes Berowne the lone stand-out in each of his scenes.
Not surprisingly, Berowne plays a central role in the eavesdropping scene that ends the first act. Make no mistake—this scene is Shakespearean comedy at its best. First, Berowne monologues about Rosaline, the lady-in-waiting that has stolen his heart. Berowne hears a noise, hides, and King Ferdinand enters to deliver some sonnets about the Princess of France. A noise. Now two men are hiding while Dumane (Julian Hester) talks of his love. Another noise. Now three are hiding as Lougueville (Madison Niederhauser) monologues. Shakespeare winds up the scene and then unspools it as each eavesdropper in kind is accused of being the first to break the pact.
Outside of those two scenes, Love’s Labor’s Lost is a confusing mess which spends far too much time on an entourage of supporting characters populating the King’s palace for no discernible reason. An aging soldier (Allen Gilmore) talks about love, a kid named Moth (Aaron Lamm) sings, and ultimately eight minor characters put on a show-within-a-show that might be reminiscent of Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream if the scene were not so mean-spirited and devoid of humor.
At least now I know there was nothing wrong with 13-year-old me. One might think I would be done with Love’s Labor’s Lost, but while researching for this blog, I happened upon a trailer for a movie version set with teenagers at a private school. Who knows? If this version ever finds a distributor, maybe I’ll find myself giving Love’s Labor’s Lost one more try.