Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lost Love's

Johnny Lee Davenport and Khalil Flemming in Love's Labour's Lost.

Shakespeare is, indeed, the playwright of a thousand faces, and open to at least as many interpretations. Still, the local reaction to the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of Love's Labour's Lost was enough to make your head spin. Louise Kennedy, in the Boston Globe, pronounced LLL "the closest thing Shakespeare ever wrote to a Marx Brothers comedy." (Rosaline, meet Margaret Dumont!) Meanwhile, over at the Phoenix, Carolyn Clay mused that LLL was actually one of the Bard's "most mannered and formulaic comedies."

Hmmm. A mannered and formulaic Marx Brothers comedy. Both ladies were seemingly vying for my recently announced Critical Darwin Award. Still, their fumbles weren't as irritating as the production's own pronouncements, via dramaturge David Evett (father of ASP Artistic Director Benjamin Evett):

"Love's Labour's Lost" emerges from a period in English drama . . . in which the structural principle is the principle of beads on a string: a series of interesting moments linked . . . by a plot but largely treated as ends in themselves.

Is he kidding? There's really no precedent in English drama for the carefully balanced thematic mandala of Love's Labour's Lost (or that of Midsummer - the two are so developmentally entwined they seem to orbit each other). And dating the play as prior to 1594 (as Evett seems to do) would strike many as controversial. So is Evett père simply covering for Evett fils? Probably - for his supposed "structural principle" is an apt description of precisely what's wrong with the ASP production. With a cast of just six actors, director Evett pulls off an amusing series of clever dumbshows and gender switcheroos, but the accumulative power of the play evaporates as it is, indeed, reduced to a series of funny snippets on a string. What's weird is the string is so taut - the actors (much like the actors in Boston Theatreworks' recent Midsummer) understand exactly what they're saying every minute, and make many of the obscure jokes (if not all - the text in places is highly cut) work superbly. You can get a rousing introduction to Elizabethan low comedy from this crowd - you just can't get Love's Labour's Lost.

Which is a pity, because the play is a novel, and utterly exquisite, double critique of erudition and narcissism (in which the learned and the lovers are both blind), with an equally original structure (sorry, Professor Evett!) - it closes with a twist which would shock us in a romcom even now (a death in the family), and the curtain falls on a rueful acceptance of romantic and sexual frustration (just like Animal Crackers!). Luckily, Boston saw a brilliant (if at times too broadly comic) production of LLL at the Huntington last summer (to the Globe's Kennedy, that version simply had "a bigger budget, a larger cast, and more elegant costumes" - cue sound of teeth gnashing). One might expect, in fact, that the ASP would produce a more sober, thoughtful LLL to contrast with the Huntington's take - but no, Evett actually ups the ante on the schtick, so we're left hanging as to the production's motivation, except perhaps as an actors' showcase.

Sarah Newhouse and Marianna Bassham get showcased.

This, of course, is beginning to seem like the actual raison d'être of the ASP - or as a friend of mine once termed them, "the Actors-Versus-Shakespeare Project." If there really is anything to their actor-centered approach, you'd think it would have borne more artistic fruit by now - but Titus, easily the best production of theirs I've seen so far, was a triumph of atmospheric design and lighting rather than acting. There have been strikingly good performances in other ASP efforts (indeed, there are some here) - yet the productions almost never cohere. Does this matter to them? Or can they not see the failure of their M.O., ironically enough, because of the kind of innocent narcissism that blinds the lovers in LLL?

These are questions which have long since been answered, actually, but I doubt said answers are going to impact the ASP any time soon (Cambridge and the academy have, for obvious reasons, a soft spot for this sort of collegiate Shakespeare). In the meantime, there are laurels to be spread around the LLL cast. The production will probably be best-remembered as the moment when Marianna Bassham broke free of her trailer-park typecasting and came into her own: her Rosaline left the Huntington's in the dust, and only made you wish she could do Berowne, too (meanwhile her takes on Costard and Dumaine, though dumb, were pretty damn sweet). I look forward to Bassham's Beatrice, Kate and Imogen, and maybe even her Viola. Johnny Lee Davenport's Don Armado was a boldly, but accurately, rendered delight, which completely redeemed his crass take on Claudius last season (or was that Rick Lombardo's take?). My only quibble with Davenport was that the pathos that should haunt Armado was little in evidence till the finale (when essentially it's too late). Meanwhile Sarah Newhouse, Michael Forden Walker, and the preternaturally self-possessed Khalil Flemming all spun skillful performances - only Jason Bowen was a bit overwhelmed (and miscast) as the scornfully witty Berowne. Still, he found nice moments in drag as Katharine - and it was good to see an African-American actor casually masculine enough to play with his sexual presentation on stage (sorry, but we all know how rare this is). As usual for the ASP, I left the production liking the actors more than the show - but someday, I hope, I'll enjoy both equally.


  1. Perhap's critics are confusing formulaic with "artificial." (Which was the pronouncement of Critic Mark Van Doren.)

    Combine this with Auden's comparison of Shakespeare's treatment of his subject with how Navarre and the other men are "pursuing seriousness in a frivoulous way."

  2. Perhaps that is the confusion they're making - only it's still a confusion, and at any rate, LLL isn't particularly artificial, either, even if its characters often are.

    To prove this point, I need only quote the show's final song to winter - a sudden reminder of how connected Shakespeare always remained to his rustic birth:

    When icicles hang by the wall
    And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
    And Tom bears logs into the hall
    And milk comes frozen home in pail,
    When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
    Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
    Tu-who, a merry note,
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
    When all aloud the wind doth blow
    And coughing drowns the parson's saw
    And birds sit brooding in the snow
    And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
    When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
    Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
    Tu-who, a merry note,
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

    And then the final, poignant words (with a superbly reticent, and prescient, note of the meta-theatrical in Don Armado's instructions to the audience, and then the actors:)

    The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way.

  3. But doesn't that get at what Auden is proposing.

    Shakespeare has more serious ambitions in this comedy, hinted at by Berowne,(who goes on to fulfill them for Shakespeare in Hamlet.)

    But I believe Shakespeare is too concerned with his examination of contemporary manners and his interest in examining the limits of his powers with the language. (Harold Bloom muses that in this instance Shakespeare finds that his powers in that regard are limitless.)

    In other words, I think you are giving him a pass.(Understandably, by the way.) I have never seen a production that has satisfatorily engaged the balance that Shakespeare seems to be hinting at in the final moments. (The announcement of a death in the midst of farce, the juxtapostion of the songs, and the the Don's solemn entreaty.)

    The reason, I would suggest, is that it all comes too late to the text.

    Nicholas Martin even helped along the Bard in this respect at the end by leaving his Berowne alone in the cool dusk, with an autumn breeze rustling the leaves of the summer tree.

  4. Hmmm - I'm not sure how we're disagreeing. I certainly DON'T disagree with you that Shakespeare has serious ambitions in LLL; in fact, lumping it with The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona is what irritates me about David Evett's notes. LLL and Midsummer mark a huge expansion in Shakespeare's intellectual reach (more so than Romeo and Juliet does, methinks). In both plays you can feel very deep analyses of the human condition moving against each other and then feeding into each other in that patented Shakespearean way.

    I agree with you, btw, that Nicholas Martin's finale at the Huntington was quite effective, but it wasn't that unusual. I saw an even more haunting finish in my favorite production, by Michael Langham at Stratford in Canada some twenty years ago. That version ended with Don Armado tightly re-buttoning his vest (remember, he has no shirt) against a gust of autumn wind - then taking Moth's hand as the first leaves began to actually fall from the trees. (A sense of Don Armado's age was an important ingredient missing at both the Huntington and the ASP.)

  5. I am sorry to make this response so late, but I was out of the country from mid-May until the final performance of LLL, and nobody ever mentioned the review to me thereafter until I stumbled across it while looking for something else.

    For a more nuanced account of the paratactic Traditional style, to which I believe LLL belongs, see the opening chapters of my book, Literature and the Visual Arts in Tudor England (Univ. of Georgia Press, 1990). The reference exposes the essential cheapshot quality of your suggestion that my notes took this line out of parental prejudice. It's probably true that Ben and I share similar views on many things, but we did not at any time discuss the structure of this play, and I wrote the program note before rehearsals started.

    David Evett

  6. I'm sorry, David, to have offended you, and I'm willing to retract my insinuation that your program note was conceived to help conceal the structural problems of your son's production.

    Still, the production did have those problems, and I'm afraid I completely disagree with you about LLL. In no sense can I consider it "paratactic," either line-by-line or in its arrangement of scenes. "Parataxis," for those few of you who may be reading along, and who don't feel like running to the dictionary, is a technique in which short phrases - or more generally, artistic units of any type - are strung together with obvious disjunctures which conjure a larger sense of artistic space. (Dialogue in which characters suddenly jump, without warning, from one level of consciousness to another, is a good example.)

    Shakespeare, however (at least in the comedies such as LLL) is obviously at pains to provide a sense of symphonic, rather than paratactic, structure to his scenes. The roundelay of LLL, which moves steadily down, then up, the social ladder, with clear inversions, "doublings," and ironic variations, does not exhibit the sense of startling "jumps" that one associates with classic parataxis; nor does parataxis generally include the final "synthesis" typical of LLL, Midsummer, and other high Shakespearean comedies. Considering the high tide of Shakespeare/Marlowe conflation we're experiencing these days, it's all the more important to keep a clear handle on Shakespeare's structural goals - as they distinguish him from Marlowe (who was, yes, more paratactic).

    Of course you're free to insist on your own point of view (and Ben's), but I have to point out that your joint production almost disproved your claims; it had none of the cumulative power LLL should have - and not just my, but the rather addled responses from other critics - should have brought that home to you.