Comedy Restored

Shakespeare's 'Love's Labours Lost' may be obscure, but Arizona Repertory Theatre transforms the play into an amusing performance

It just doesn't make sense: Four bright young men want to live forever--at least in other people's memories--by giving up all a young man's pleasures in life. They want to form a renowned academy, and in the process they forswear women, freedom of movement and partying down. The project is sure to fail, especially once four young women show up to distract the guys from their endeavors.

Other things don't make sense in this story, which is Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost. The dialog is full of fancy wordplay and obscure topical references that nobody can understand anymore. If a joke needs a footnote, can it possibly be funny? Well, sometimes, yes, for the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre has managed to mount an utterly hilarious production of this, one of Shakespeare's most peculiar comedies.

In Shakespeare's original, the young fellows are more or less Spanish noblemen, including a king (in Shakespeare, as in Gilbert and Sullivan, all the foreigners are really just Englishmen with exotic names). The young women are French, including a princess who has come to make terms with young King Ferdinand on behalf of her father, the king of France. Whatever politicking was supposed to take place immediately falls by the wayside. Ferdinand and his young courtiers are smitten by the French girls, and so their noble intellectual energies are diverted to wooing them, while trying somehow not to break their self-imposed rule of celibacy.

Director Brent Gibbs has very convincingly plucked the action out of Shakespeare's time and plopped it down into a contemporary American prep school. At first, this is just a little disconcerting; instead of young noblemen playing at creating an academy, it seems that these will be young denizens of an academy playing at being noblemen. But within a scene or two Gibbs and his actors have the audience persuaded that this is the very best setting for this particular story. Really, where else anymore but at a prep school can we encounter young men who are equally full of intellectual ambition and full of themselves, unsuccessfully fighting off their hormones to do things they believe to be brilliant, but things about which the outside world doesn't really care?

These boys are drunk on language, full of metaphor and poesy and pun; the girls, in contrast, are more grounded in life and reality, and tease the guys with literalist misunderstandings of their figures of speech. A lot of the jokes were deemed obscure even by Shakespeare's close contemporaries, and 400 years later we have little hope of getting them all. But Gibbs makes sure that we at least get the comic intent, if not the content; he has a good understanding of the Elizabethan taste for farcically overblown characters, and he's assembled a cast that has a perfect command of each nuance, subtle and broad alike.

The actors are mostly UA undergrads, some as young as sophomores, with one faculty member and one postgraduate fellow tossed in as older characters. But from sophomore to seasoned pro, every single actor hits every note just right. Well, I could imagine a somewhat more complicated conception of Berowne, King Ferdinand's most thoughtful but also antic follower. Even so, Jonathan Kobritz easily holds interest and has no trouble convincing us that he's the central figure in this story.

And that's no easy task, considering that he shares the stage with the likes of Patrick Roberts, who makes the king an easy blend of jock and intellectual, and the outstanding Charlotte Bernhardt as the princess, who's gotten up like Buffy the Vampire Slayer but turns out to be a calculating and noble figure. Then there are the two uproarious clown figures: the innocent, earnest and dim Costard, played with gangly sweetness by Javan Nelson; and the braggart Spanish warrior Armado, played by a strutting Nikko Kimzin, lisping like a Castilian and popping his plosives so that every sentence turns into a little explosion of ego.

Perhaps it's unfair to single out those performers, for every member of this cast is equally fine, including Kevin Black in the difficult role of Holofernes, the pedantic faculty member--difficult because half his lines are in Latin, and even the other half don't really correspond to anything you find in everyday conversation. But Black, in his tweedy overconfidence, makes us believe in the character's funniness.

Toward the end, it's the faintly ridiculous Holofernes who proves to have nobler instincts than the casually cruel adolescents surrounding Ferdinand. Clearly--it's especially clear to the French girls--they simply aren't ready for adult society. The guys' fancy words aren't enough to sway the women, who want to see evidence of the boys' worth through action. They demand a year-long cooling-off period, so once the house lights come back up we've been confronted by a strange comedy that begins in unrealistic intellectual idealism but ends in the prospect of penance and hardship. Thus are love's labors lost, at least for now.

Gibbs makes this sense of loss especially poignant at the very end, throwing away Shakespeare's little metaphoric song about cuckoos and owls, substituting something more contemporary, and nipping and tucking the text here and there. All the other production elements work with comparable subtlety and effectiveness, especially Katie Alvord's set, consisting only of a few benches at the perimeter of a circular platform, above which spins a giant astrolabe; the action is delicately framed with falling autumn leaves at the beginning and snowflakes at the end.

Concluding a goofy play on such a bittersweet note requires finesse and integrity, something held in abundance not only by Shakespeare but also by Arizona Repertory Theatre.