For this early Shakespearean romantic comedy, known more for its linguistic virtuosity than for its narrative strengths, the playing is the thing. And in the Huntington’s production, it is bright, smart and touching.
Helmer Nicholas Martin doesn’t resist the strained setup as the young King of Navarre (Kieran Campion) and his three buddies forswear women, food and sleep for what they see as the far nobler pursuit of the mind.
Martin playfully presents a quartet of frat lords, so full of themselves they can’t see beyond their own conceits as they try to become masters of their sexual and intellectual domain.
Martin even has a pianist on hand to help keep the bonhomie buoyant and the boys on the verge of bursting into song. (Indeed, Kenneth Branagh simply made his film version of the play into a 1930s Hollywood musical.)
Soon the Princess of France (Mia Barron) and her own trio of self-assured ladies of the court arrive on state business, and in no time, the boys have more than books on their mind. But these are ladies-in-waiting for their men to grow up and discover that enlightenment comes from life, too.
Much of the play is a charming battle between the sexes — and entourages — with time out for the diverting but inconsequential subplot involving a Spanish lothario, a clown, a curate and a schoolmaster.
Making up for what may be lacking in narrative development is the richness of the play’s poetry and wordplay, especially that of Berowne (Noah Bean), the brightest of the king’s men, who sees right away the futility of the challenge but goes along anyway (what with royal peer pressure and all). Bean is captivating, delivering the play’s best speeches with clarity, thought and assured grace. Campion does well, too, as the ascetic young king.
On the distaff side, Barron is a self-possessed queen, and Zabryna Guevara makes a worthy match for Berowne. Will LeBow lives up to the description of the “fantastical Spaniard” in a hilarious turn. Jeremy Beck as his page, Moth, lends comic support as well as a lovely voice.
Martin sets the play in 1910, when the world seems young, innocent and carefree. It’s a smart setting for what seems to be an ideal escape.
At the center of the production both physically and thematically is what must be the mother of all trees, stunningly designed by Andrew Dodge. It’s a giant arbor around which characters hide, eavesdrop and romp.
Under Ben Stanton’s gorgeous lighting, however, its verdant lushness eventually takes on an autumnal hue. As the frolics of summer give way to a more sober season, the characters, too, change and gain a greater understanding of life, death and, most significantly, love.
Martin doesn’t soften the play’s bittersweet conclusion in song or sport. As the men go off to prove their newfound maturity and the women prepare to wait, there comes a separate exquisite peace coming not from love’s labour’s lost but love’s lessons learned.