Love’s Labor’s Lost

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.

Ferdinand - Hoon Lee
Berowne - Nick Westrate
Princess of France - Renee Elise Goldsberry
Rosaline - Rebecca Brooksher
Don Adriano de Armado - Reg E. Cathey
Holofernes - Steven Skybell
Sir Nathaniel/Marcade - Francis Jue
Jaquenetta - Stephanie DiMaggio

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Love's Labor's Lost

Public Theater -- Ansbacher; 273 seats; $15 top

Production: A Public Theater presentation of a play in one act by William Shakespeare. Directed by Karin Coonrod.

Creative: Set, John Conklin; costumes, Oana Botez Ban; lighting, Brian H. Scott; music, Tony Geballe; vocal coach, Robert Perillo; production stage manager, Lori Lundquist. Opened Oct 31, 2011. Reviewed Oct. 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Ferdinand - Hoon Lee
Berowne - Nick Westrate
Princess of France - Renee Elise Goldsberry
Rosaline - Rebecca Brooksher
Don Adriano de Armado - Reg E. Cathey
Holofernes - Steven Skybell
Sir Nathaniel/Marcade - Francis Jue
Jaquenetta - Stephanie DiMaggio
With: Kieth Eric Chapelle, Jorge Chacon, Samira Wiley, Michelle Beck, Mousa Kraish and Robert Stanton.

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content