The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s outdoor production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is simply a delight. The play, which is the odd result of a young Shakespeare playfully experimenting with form, is not produced very often at all, let alone in the high-profile outdoor summer production slot. But as director Brian Crowe showed last season with the Shakespeare Theatre’s Pericles, he and the theater excel at bringing out the essence of a Shakespearean rarity. In Pericles, Crowe highlighted the far-flung mysteriousness of the play; here in Love’s Labour’s Lost he captures all the goofiness that the play offers.
The play takes place in the court of King Ferdinand (Jonathan Raviv), where three young scholars, Berowne (Ben Jacoby), Longaville (Aaron McDaniel), and Dumaine (Austin Ku) have come to join the king in stoic study for three years. But the king has a great many austerity conditions to which his pupils must agree before they join him, the most notable of which is the requirement to abjure the company of women. The pupils hem and haw before signing a contract to the terms, and when they finally do so, each claims that he will be able to outlast the others in honoring the commitment.
Once the Princess of France (Jesmille Darbouze) shows up with three lovely ladies in tow, the flimsiness of all four vows becomes clear and hijinks ensue: each man tries to woo without his colleagues’ knowledge, but once those shams crumble the men join forces in elaborate efforts to win their ladies.
In the space of this contrived plot of romantic comedy, Crowe and his excellent cast find plenty of room for fun. When the men are for a short time committed to their abstinence, for example, they march around the stage like resolute soldiers of scholarship, holding their books in front of their faces to protect from the dangerous gaze of the women. For their part, the women understand the ridiculousness of the charade, but they and Crowe do well to allow the men enough room to make fools of themselves without much help from anybody else.
Following up his excellent turn as Dogberry in the Shakespeare Theatre’s recent Much Ado About Nothing, Jeffrey M. Bender as Don Armado shines as he manages to make a largely inconsequential subplot one of the production’s greatest joys. Armado is a Spanish fencer who in the hands of Bender’s considerable comic talent becomes an extravagant and bombastic figure with an accent hilarious enough in and of itself.
From the playfully colorful setting and the necessarily hammy acting to the goofy manner by which the production responds to noisy passing airplanes, this outdoor Love’s Labour’s Lost succeeds impressively in excavating a very fun summer’s evening out of this Shakespearean rarity.