Love's a Game
by Anthony Chase
Love's Labour's Lost at Chautauqua Institution
If the Chautauqua Theater Company pitched a curveball to its audience with its energetic avant-garde production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters earlier this season, their current production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is a gentle softball, indeed.
Director Ethan McSweeny has taken this play about young people playing with love, and has set the scene on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution at the turn of the 20th century. Scenic designer Lee Savage provides a handsome recreation of the veranda of Chautauqua’s iconic Athenaeum Hotel, with the Miller bell tower in the distance. Costume designer Tracy Christensen has clothed the characters in costumes that evoke an idealized memory of a Chautauqua lost in time. Steven Cahill provides a happy score of leisurely ragtime. And while the youthful characters treat love like a game, McSweeny makes the metaphor literal with lawn games, and archery, and playfulness of every sort, reinforced by the actual scenes of play-acting and disguise provided by Shakespeare.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the young King of Navarre coerces his three closest friends into taking a vow that they will commit to three years of scholarship and personal deprivation—including denying themselves of the company of women. In the next moment we learn that the beautiful Princess of France has arrived at the kingdom with three attractive ladies in waiting, seeking an audience at court. Under the circumstances, this request is denied, and the rebuffed ladies are obliged to set up camp outside his castle. Meanwhile, a Spanish noble visiting the court informs the King that he has caught two lusty locals cavorting in the park—later confessing that he has fallen in love with the girl himself. McSweeny amusingly conceives these as a Spanish fop, and, with another Chautauqua-specific reference, the local boy and girl are Amish.
And so the games begin.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is well suited to the youthful Chautauqua acting company. Josiah Bania of Yale Drama School is the King of Navarre, Dave Quay of NYU, Tyee Tilghman of A.C.T., and Peter Mark Kendall of Brown / Trinity Rep are “his friends and fellow vow-swearers.” Helen Cespedes of Juilliard is the Princess of France with Marinda Anderson of NYU, Charlotte Graham of Brown/Trinity Rep, and Laura Gragtmans of Yale Drama School as “her friends and traveling companions.”
While a certain sameness imbues the two cadres of royal companions, McSweeny has populated the rest of the proceedings with vivid personalities, lending life and focus to the production.
Marvelous stage veteran Jarlath Conroy plays priggish Holofernes with sparkling wit and precision—his impeccable timing is matched by a stage presence that has graced many a Broadway and regional stage. His performance is a treat. He is agreeably paired with dry-witted Carol Halstead of the Chautauqua faculty as “Sister Nathanial.” Benjamin Mehl of NYU cashes in with his unbridled approach to broadly comical and wonderfully memorable Don Adriano de Armando. Josh Tobin of the University of North Carolina and Andrea Syglowski of Juilliard are entirely endearing as the local boy and very randy girl. Charlie Thurston of Brown/Trinity Rep takes a playful and engaging turn as Moth.
The production is sweet and entertaining, and without breaking a philosophical sweat manages to pose the underlying questions of the play: Are these characters treating love as a toy, or does their youth leave them blind to the seriousness of love and the ever-present threat of loss? This will not be the most intellectually sustaining production of a Shakespeare play you have seen—but it will provide an evening of delightful diversion, and that would appear to be its goal.
Love’s Labour’s Lost continues at the Bratton Family Theater of the Chautauqua Institution through August 19.
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