Thursday, June 14, 2007
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.