Maybe it’s a lucky combination of cast and director. Maybe the play is a lot better than most of us remember it. Maybe it’s simply the act of taking pressure off a Public Theater Shakespeare production by putting it in a smaller venue under the auspices of the Public Lab. Whatever the reason, Karin Coonrod’s stripped-down “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is far and away the most straightforwardly enjoyable Shakespeare offering at the Public so far this year.
It’s only the second time the Lab has hosted a Shakespeare production (the other was “Timon of Athens” in February), and one of the production’s obvious advantages is that this loosely structured comedy benefits immeasurably from a smaller venue and a cast whose most distinguished film or TV credit is Reg E. Cathey’s recurring role on “The Wire.” Coonrod has managed to pull together a notoriously disparate script by eliciting funny, nuanced performances from each of these players, so that no skeptic is ever allowed that crucial moment in which to ask himself whether or not the plot makes sense.
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The story of “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” not that it matters, follows a foolish king (a lively Hoon Lee) who makes his three servants swear off girls just before the French Princess (Renee Elise Goldsberry, charming) and her three ladies-in-waiting arrive. Hard-to-follow hijinks usually ensue, but this production manages to distinguish each hijink from the following one.
The designers have made the most of an obviously limited budget, especially costumer Oana Botez Ban, and if some of Coonrod’s airier conceits (why is the servant who follows around the excellent Cathey also Cupid?) don’t make sense, it doesn’t do the experience any harm. There are some very silly moments in “Love’s Labor’s Lost” — two or three that catapult over the top — but never at the expense of the adventurous production as a whole.
Through Coonrod’s interpretation, one of two things become clear: either Shakespeare loved actors, or actors held Shakespeare’s children hostage. Every character, no matter how small, has a moment to shine in “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” Nearly everyone makes the most of his or her moment in the spotlight, and there’s room enough in 130 minutes here for a witty ingenue (the lovely Rebecca Brooksher), a foolish teacher (the very funny Steven Skybell), a country boy in over his head (a terrific Mousa Kraish) and a dozen others. Coonrod has kept these people in the same play — it’s easy to imagine how fourteen actors each waiting for his or her big scene could confuse a knotty play still further — but she’s also given them permission to entertain.
When a country parson (Francis Jue) reads a misdelivered love note to the illiterate Jaquenetta (Stephanie DiMaggio), DiMaggio, listening, tells a whole play’s worth of story with gestures and expressions that show progression from dubious to shocked to kittenish to moved, all with hardly a word. It’s very funny (DiMaggio gives her taciturn character a heavy dose of Natasha Fatale), and it’s also very sad, because the poem isn’t meant for her. The two performers cap the scene off with a gag that’s better seen than described.
But more than anything, the play rests on the shoulders of Nick Westrate, who plays Berowne, the young man who seems to speak for the author and tells us when to laugh and when to take him seriously. Westrate, as he showed in Tony Speciale’s “Unnatural Acts” earlier this year at CSC, can turn on a dime. One moment he’s making fun of his king (the excellent Hoon Lee); the next he’s declaiming about love. His job is made more difficult by the fact that much of “Love’s Labors” is devoted to making fun of sonneteering — wooing with verse — and Shakespeare himself wasn’t yet at the height of his powers, so poems of similar quality have to be made to sound ridiculous in one scene and intensely moving in the next.
Even more than a fun night at the theater, this show is probably a very good introduction to Shakespeare. Its themes are easy to spot, it’s funny throughout, and you’re unlikely to get the sense that you’d be enjoying it more if you were smarter — something that has scared folks away from the Bard for time out of mind. Between this show and “Sleep No More,” it’s a good time to be discovering an old writer anew.