Like the oath taken by its men regarding women, this Chicago Shakes production keeps its passions at a slight remove.
There’s a hint of Jane Austen to director Marti Maraden’s Love’s Labor’s Lost that goes beyond the production’s Regency period setting. The women here are the self-assured ones. They’re the smartest, the wittiest, the kindest to those below their own stations. And while they wield a great deal more power than the women Austen wrote about—they’re quite a few rungs higher on the social ladder—they wield it carefully, and without cruelty. While the men are the ones doing the laboring, Maraden never forgets that the love of these women is not simply a prize to be won. It’s an honor, one they themselves are free to bestow—or withhold.
Love’s Labor’s Lost occupies an odd sort of middle ground in the Shakespearean canon. It lacks the pure charge of his more populist works, but also the emotional complexity of his best ones. The play is a journey between two oaths. The first, taken by Ferdinand, the King of Navarre (John Tufts), and his three courtiers—Berowne (Nate Burger, wonderful), Dumaine (Julian Hester), and Longaville (Madison Niederhauser)—sees them committing to three years of fasting and study, during which time they will completely forswear women. It’s the kind of oath made by a petulant teen—extreme, unyielding and more than a little bit misogynistic.
That oath is swiftly broken when the Princess of France (the superb Jennie Greenberry) arrives in the King’s Court on business with her three ladies in waiting—Rosaline (Laura Rook), Katherine (normally Taylor Blim, understudied on opening night by Leryn Turlington) and Maria (Jennifer Latimore). The King and his lads are instantly smitten, as are Princess Katherine and her ladies, to be fair. The men try to work out how they can each woo in secret, while the ladies calculate how they can best tweak those efforts. But these are not the only lovers in the mix: There is also the resplendently ludicrous Spaniard Don Amado (Allen Gilmore, goofily sublime), who is in love with a woman named Jacquenetta (Maggie Portman), as well as a clown named Costard (Alex Goodrich), whose general role is the same as all other clowns in classic comedies: to deliver the wrong letters to the wrong parties.
Like the play itself, this production often feels like it is caught between the twin poles of high and low comedy. And though the Regency setting means that the production looks quite gorgeous (much credit goes to set designer Kevin Depinet and costume designer Christina Poddubiuk), the relative rigidity of the period extends to the action itself. The play often feels polite, too polite—like a painting in a museum that’s being kept safely behind glass. James Newcomb brings some welcome bawdiness as Katherine’s trusty servant Boyett, and Goodrich is able to turn one word, remuneration, into the show’s funniest recurring joke, but there are few other instances where Shakespeare’s language bursts to life. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this production, but very little that’s particularly memorable about it either.
One big exception is how Maraden handles the play’s famously abrupt, melancholic ending. Remember there was mention of a second oath? Well, the oath that Ferdinand and company make in the show’s final moments is of a far different cast than the one they made at its outset. This oath is more like a promise to their lady loves, to wait for them in an accordance that their partners have set out. It’s an agreement, between adults, to respect the needs and wants of the other person. As the rest of the cast serenades them with a sad, hopeful ballad (music by Keith Thomas), it is perhaps the first time all evening that you’ll find yourself thinking that, hey, these crazy kids might just make it after all.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Marti Maraden. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.