On opening night for “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre on Sunday, arriving patrons were greeted with a torrential downpour that only became more steady as curtain time approached. The storm calmed and the clouds parted shortly after 8 p.m., and an intrepid band of performers took the stage to remind their audience that, even when the weather is miserable, the play is still the thing.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” is among Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, and is among his more popular, thanks for the most part to the cultivated language and clever references to the better known literary forms of the day. Written to be performed specifically in front of the professional classes (as well as Elizabeth 1), the play is a fast-paced, funny, meaty piece of theater that can be wonderfully absorbing when properly handled. Jacques de Longuyon’s “The Vows of the Peacock” inspired Shakespeare to include in the play his famous “Nine Worthies” text.
The chances of so cultivated a play being dull under the hand of director Amanda Dehnert — whose five seasons at OSF have brought us such gems as “Timon of Athens” and 2014’s magical “Into the Woods” — are slim indeed. Throw into the mix two of OSF’s finest actors in the form of Daniel Joe Molina and Alejandra Escalante, and you have a recipe for success.
Molina is quite marvelous as Ferdinand, the young King of Navarre who has sworn off women for a life of study and contemplation. His attendant Lords Berowne (Stephen Michael Spencer) Longaville (Jeremy Gallardo) and Dumain (William Thomas Hodgson) have fallen in line with their master, pledging their energies to the same spartan regimen. Things get complicated with the arrival of the Princess of France (Escalante) and her clique of subordinates in the form of Rosaline (Jennie Greenberry), Maria (Niani Feelings), Katharine (Tatiana Wechsler) and Boyet (Vilma Silva). A classic comedy of misunderstanding and note-passing intrigue ensues. Needless to say, the procreative drives of youth upend any fleeting plans of monkhood, but in the end it is the ladies of France who get the last laugh.
This particular group of actors represent some of the finest emergent leaders in the OSF firmament, and it is clearly no mistake that Molina and Escalante were cast together. The two are clearly the prima donna and primo uomo of this advancing crew. Both have been strikingly consistent in the past few seasons in both the artistic quality and pervasive quantity of their performances, most notably in the Henry plays of 2017 and this year. The two seem to be leading the company into a territory of artistic discipline that is worthy of a more global stage. Stephen Michael Spencer, who in past seasons has been assigned the role of the comedic acrobat — at times cringingly so — is another notable, now stepping into his power as a compelling and mature actor. His work in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is some of the best I’ve seen from Spencer.
Greenberry, Feelings, Wechsler and especially Silva are on point, but it is the Lords of Spain who show up best here, with Gallardo and Hodgson, Molina and Spencer working off of one another with a mature, playful comedic rhythm that allows the audience to relax and have fun. A bizarre and vaguely self-conscious set design seems designed to remind the world of how much of a production company OSF can be. Trees encased in scaffolding, a pig blimp reminiscent of Pink Floyd suspended in the middle distance, fallen half moons, concrete statues and a pile of square, silver balloons straight out of Warhol’s Factory, all come to good use in time. Live music enhances the overall mood, and costumes by Mara Blumfeld are legitimately spectacular. Creative choices to utilize handfuls of paint against bright white livery pays off, and the visual cues have Dehnert all over them - a sort of mescaline-addled clown posse motif that mates Bertolt Brecht with late Fellini.
The chaos of the production design can be dizzying at times, but thanks to excellent acting and deft directing, the show comes off well. It’s not my top choice for the current season, but it’s fun and challenging and original, and probably should be seen.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.