Tolstoy once wrote, "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The plays of William Shakespeare are kind of like that. While each of the Bard's tragedies is tragic in its own way, his comedies tend to run together, blending varying amounts of mistaken identity, misdirected messages, cross-dressing and, somewhere toward the end, a clumsily performed play within a play.
Which is why it's so important that a theater company put its own unique spin on its chosen production. Fortunately, in the case of Love's Labor's Lost, TheatreWorks does.
As for the last three years, TheatreWorks is performing its season opener inside a big tent at Rock Ledge Ranch. (The play runs through Aug. 26.) This makes for an interesting dependence on the weather — the night I went, the wind was lifting the flaps, apparently trying to get its own peek — but there's no denying the magic of seeing Shakespeare done in such idyllic surroundings.
Even more magical, for me at least, was the gusto with which the veteran cast members threw themselves into the script. Love's Labor's Lost is such a frothy trifle of a play that it was considered a poor cousin to the Bard's other comedies and went unperformed for almost 200 years. When done right, however, as it is here by director Murray Ross, it can also be one of Shakespeare's funniest.
Kevin Landis plays the King of Navarre, a monarch so devoted to study and clean living that he refuses contact with women for three years — and pressures his three attendants to take the same vow. No sooner do they sign the contract, however, than the Princess of France, played with knowing wit by Amy Brooks, arrives with three of her own attendants.
The men are instantly smitten, of course, and each of them launches a secret plan to win the heart of his beloved. It's obvious to the Princess, however, that the men are only in love with the idea of love, and she decides to teach them a lesson by having her ladies disguise themselves so that the four of them can swap places.
It's not much to hang a play on, and anyone who’s seen more than a couple Shakespearean comedies knows exactly what's coming next. But it really doesn’t matter because the real joy of the play is in the verbal sparring, the deluge of putdowns and puns, and the fertile ground these provide for physical comedy. And in this production, Ross cast some of the best clowns in town.
Sammie Joe Kinnett, as the wisecracking attendant Berowne, steals the show right out from under his comrades, all of whom are wooing the women while dressed as Communist-era Russians, complete with fur hats and oversized mustaches. Jordan Mathews bounds across the simple stage as Costard, a “rustic” who the men enlist to carry messages to the women but who only succeeds in messing things up even further. And Tom Paradise is a bumbling Spanish soldier who boasts of his love for a sweet country girl winningly played by Takiah Coleman, but who seems to be more in love with the sound of his own lisping, heavily accented voice.
The women may win the battle of wits, but it’s the men who through sheer persistence win the day. At least until the end of Act V, when the meaning of the play’s title finally becomes clear.
But this production is so buoyant, so full of life and love, we know that the men will succeed, must succeed. Only this time, they’ll know what love really means.