Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to perform for an audience. With its intentionally complicated and pretentious language, the text does not lend itself to performance easily. When reading the play I often find myself wondering how in the world a company might stage it. With dialogue so dense and complicated for a reader to digest, how will an audience be able to understand it, especially when being performed at high-speed? Remarkably, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s recent production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the American Shakespeare Tavern manages to utilize enough physical comedy, over-the-top acting, and audience interaction to make this play thoroughly delightful.
The play starts off slowly, which gives the actors and the audience the opportunity to get comfortable with the text of the play and its themes. However, the play explodes with life and energy when Don Armado walks onstage. Armado, played by Anthony Rodriguez in his first role at the Tavern, is so over-the-top that it almost doesn't matter what he is says because it all sounds hilarious. His interactions with Adam King’s Moth are some of the most enjoyable in the whole play. Armado’s appearance literally sets the stage for the broad physical comedy that takes place throughout the show.
When the ladies of France arrive, the play comes into its own as either a modern day romantic comedy or high school drama. And while the Princess and her ladies are played wonderfully, it is Boyet (Matt Nitchie) who provides the most comic relief in their scenes. I wasn't surprised because I have yet to see Nitchie deliver anything less than a remarkable performance in every show I've seen at the American Shakespeare Tavern.
Some of the most difficult scenes to perform in Love’s Labour’s Lost are those between the schoolmaster Holofernes and the curate Sir Nathaniel. In spite of the highfalutin language and obscure literary references in the dialogue which make it inaccessible to a modern audience, director Jacyln Hofmann’s ingenious decision to cast Holofernes as a woman instantly makes these scenes not only more accessible but also very funny. The female Holofernes, played brilliantly by Mary Ruth Ralston, and Nathaniel, played by the always funny Vinnie Mascola, imbue their fairly dry dialogue with a barely hidden sexual tension which keeps the audience very much interested. These kinds of creative choices by the director both keep the audience engaged with these characters throughout and feel consistent with the themes of the play.
In addition to excellent casting, director Jaclyn Hofmann continues to showcase her brilliant and effective use of physical comedy. The last play she directed at the Tavern, A Comedy of Errors, similarly excelled in this regard and Ms. Hofmann is quickly establishing herself as the go-to director for Shakespearean comedy.
The comedy of the play culminates when the King and the Lords, dressed as Russians in a failed effort to hide their identities, perform a traditional Russian prisyadka dance and attempt to woo the Princess and her Ladies in thick, and clearly fake, Russian accents. The outright absurdity of this scene cannot be fully appreciated just by reading the text of the play (or by reading this review) and it is this scene that most clearly demonstrates the importance of seeing Shakespeare performed as opposed to just reading the texts of his plays.
Audience interaction is practically a necessity in the relatively close confines of the American Shakespeare Tavern, but there is a fine line between too much audience interaction, which can distract from the overall enjoyment of the play, and none at all. This cast seemed to delight in interacting with the audience more in this performance than in others I have seen. A play like Love’s Labour’s Lost allowed the cast to freely interact with and play off the audience’s reactions and kept the audience engaged. All in all, this production by the Atlanta Shakespeare Company elevated a difficult play to an enjoyable evening of entertainment.