'Love's Labour's' not entirely lost

Having caught many a Shakespeare play over the past 40 years in Ashland, I must confess I hark back to the period when everything was period costumes and sets. Such a thing seems almost quaint, even exotic now — and it's all to the good, considering the much broader palette from which to paint.

As with "Love's Labour's Lost," now on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage, audiences are clearly tickled and almost continuously guffawing at the setting and creative antics and sight gags of characters, which feels centuries after the Bard, maybe 100 years ago, in England.

The mating and dating game is compelling if not overwhelming at any age — so why should it be so complex and slathered over by our crazy games? Even the Bard didn't have the answer for this, but he shows us some of the bizarre charades, pretensions and hoopla that rival the mating rituals of baboons, peacocks and bed bugs.

This is a challenging play, a labyrinth of witty, 400-year-old verbal kung-fu, a gaggle of faked identities and misdelivered love letters, a sitcom on meth but acted out by brainy players freed up by Shana Cooper's imaginative direction — all mishmashed together because the huge drives of sex and love make us do some pretty embarrassing things when all we want is, well, love and sex. And shouldn't it be a lot simpler?

No, it shouldn't. We have to remember Darwin, who came along two and a half centuries after Shakespeare and spelled it all out: If it's in our nature, then it's part of natural selection. If you think the mating of hyenas is complex, that of humans is 100 times more so. If you don't have the wit, patience and tenacity to decode what the female is demanding (What do women want??) — and parading around as Russians doesn't win them — then you have to go off in the boonies for a year and think things over until you can prove to the Princess of France and her comely ladies-in-waiting, that you "know what love really is," as Kate McConnell writes in OSF's Illuminations.

Well, what is love, really? His Bardness does not answer that question but leaves us with wheels spinning, thinking maybe, after watching this cacophany of what love isn't, that we know what it might be — and if, given a minute with the King of Navarre and his courtiers, we could tell them.

All of which brings up the question: Why on earth are these hot young bucks attempting to violate the demands of nature by swearing off women for three years of — yawn — studies?

Shakespeare wrote this at the height of the Renaissance in England, following a thousand years of the Dark Ages, which was not known as a time of guilt-free joy in the fields of romance — and these same forces of repression persist to this day.

The lads indeed labor for love, abstain for fear of love, write bad poetry for love, hop about in bad disguises for love, are shamed by their own stupidity for love and, finally — perhaps like all of us — can't find the key to love and must surrender to the mystery of love, perhaps in their own pain and isolation, letting it come to them of its own wisdom and generosity.

We don't know. Shakespeare won't tell us. But love clearly doesn't appreciate or welcome labors. Yet without failing at our labors, we can't get there. In our hearts, we know the outcome for the lads: the same one that has found us ... or awaits us.

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