Shakespeare Theater Company a.d. Michael Kahn fancies himself a purist who normally shuns contemporary settings for the Bard’s work. But he has found an irresistible opportunity in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s invitation to present “Love’s Labor’s Lost” with an American flair at Stratford-on-Avon this summer as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. The result is a clever and colorful production that neither British nor D.C. auds will soon forget.
Kahn has set the work in the psychedelic 1960s, a time of miniskirts and white boots, flower power peaceniks and, for some, personal study with the Maharishi. So what could be more appropriate than to transport Shakespeare’s Kingdom of Navarre to India, where legions really do seek enlightenment?
Accompanied by an oddball blend of sitar and acid rock beats, a suddenly hip Kahn takes auds on a wildly imaginative excursion into Shakespeare’s land of romance and gender conflict. It’s a playful journey that reaches for the outlandish at every turn, and seldom comes away empty-handed.
In this production, Shakespeare’s sonnets become rock music lyrics sung by groovy guys in beads and bell-bottoms. The Princess of France and her leggy gal pals arrive at the kingdom on brightly painted mopeds and offer a zany tour of ’60s fashions. And what Russian disguises are concocted by the devilish Kahn and costumer Catherine Zuber for act five’s bit of merriment? Let’s just say they shoot for the moon on this memorable scene.
For added authenticity, the theater has augmented its company of regulars with several performers of Indian descent, most notably Amir Arison as King Ferdinand of Navarre. Arison could be the Maharishi himself, at least until he falls for the earthly charms of the princess. In addition, the role of Don Adriano de Armando is played with apt buffoonery by Geraint Wyn Davies, a hit here last year as Cyrano in an 11th-hour substitution for Stacy Keach.
Indeed, lunacy is the principal guidepost, as virtually every role is played for maximum effect. The tone is set by Michael Milligan’s Costard the clown, interpreted as the quintessential zoned-out ’60s hippie. Other comical standouts include Floyd King as the princess’s attending lord, a riot in his mud-plaster mask. Ted van Griethuysen is enjoyable as the effete schoolmaster Holofernes, paired with David Sabin’s effusively wordy Sir Nathaniel.
The trio of visiting lords who reluctantly pledge scholarship and abstinence is led by Hank Stratton’s Berowne. Stratton is a trooper as he carries the heavy load of Shakespearean wordplay with great agility. Erik Steele and Aubrey Deeker offer robust support as his lordly sidekicks, both embellishing their meaty roles with strong musical talents.
Claire Lautier as the princess clearly savors her role as a teasing coquette, joined by her three able accomplices — Sabrina LeBeauf, Angela Pierce and Colleen Delany.
Musically, the D.C. theater has a field day exploiting ’60s rock beats, sprinkled with surprise riffs from the Beatles and others.
Ralph Funicello’s set is clearly built to travel following the play’s eight-week run here. What it lacks in opulence, it gains in color and spunk with a bright rainbow arcing above a courtyard with large flower pot, entrance to the estate and a handy tree for Berowne to climb. It’s all cheerfully illuminated by Mark Doubleday and adorned with Zuber’s wonderful costumes.