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Love’s Labour’s Lost

With Only One Day and One Performance
Bootleg Shakespeare Gets It So Right

Taffety Punk Theatre Company's Bootleg Shakespeare, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Monday, August 5, 2013, E-2&4 (center stalls)
Directed by Lise Bruneau

The cast meets for the first time in the morning. They've memorized their lines, but they have never worked through the play together before. They spend the day doing just that, learning their blocking and completing their first and only walk-through of the entire play before they open the production to a public audience. They perform the play just one time. Opening night is closing night by intent.

Beckman wearing red dress aims a bow and arrow to the right
Tonya Beckman as the Princess of France in the Taffety Punk's Bootleg Shakespeare production of Love's Labour's Lost performed at the Folger Theatre. Photo by Marcus Kyd (who played the Forester), Taffety Punk

This is the premise of Taffety Punk Theatre Company's annual Bootleg Shakespeare, which this year presented William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. If you're expecting a riotous time watching actors publicly humiliate themselves by presenting a production at its rawest, you wouldn't be much disappointed. There were a few "line" calls, one fumbled dialogue, one mistimed music cue, and one way-too-early entrance. Watching the actors handle these missteps, working them into the play, is part of the adventure.

Yet, Shakespeare at his rawest is sometimes Shakespeare at his best, and this Love's Labour's Lost was a performance of richly textured hilarity owing more to the script—and the actors' expertise with it—than the production's circumstances.

This is the seventh year Taffety Punk has undertaken such an audacious assignment (previous Bootleg performances featured the bad quarto version of Hamlet, King John, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Troilus and Cressida, and Henry VIII—yeah, crazy, I know). What started as a dare to produce Cymbeline in one day in 2007 has become one of the year's most anticipated events on the Washington, D.C., theater calendar. This year, with the Folger serving as host, the free tickets were snapped up in 30 minutes, and the line for returns was three dozen deep 90 minutes before curtain. Inside, the pre-show buzz was louder than feedback at a Pearl Jam concert.

The cast was an All-Star team of talent drawn from across the city and affiliated with other companies to supplement the Taffety Punk core. Players ranged from Victoria Reinsel, cofounder of the fledgling Brave Spirits Theatre, playing a Daisy Duked, hip-thrusted Jaquenetta, to the 78-year-old eminent thespian and Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) staple Ted van Griethuysen playing a solemnly dignified Mercade. Though he spoke only three lines near the play's end, just his being there inspired applause.

The cast had several weeks to memorize their parts and come to grips with their characters, but they were forbidden from contacting each other about their performances. They also dressed themselves: Scott Hammar gets credit not as designer but "costume direction." His direction was for modern dress, with the ladies in formal gowns and the lords in business suits. Costard (STC Academy student Max Reinhardsen, who already has displayed scene-stealing talent in the ensembles of major productions) wore a T-shirt, skinny jeans and pork pie hat, and Holofernes (Faction of Fools Founding Artistic Director Matt Wilson) wore a T-shirt displaying the evolution of man from ape to robot—perfect for his portraying the pedant as a geek straight out of The Big Bang Theory. Don Adriano de Armado (Folger vet Eric Hissom) looked like a glam rocker in silver with different colored bows on his cuffs.

Director Lise Bruneau forged a well-paced ensemble performance, maintaining consistent energy throughout every scene despite the word-heavy text. She didn't have time to impose a concept on Shakespeare's script, so the production's entertainment value was spun from the play as purely as organic honey from the hive. Oddly, though, Navarre was downgraded from King to Duke (perhaps a memorial slip), and instead of Armado speaking the play's last line, "You that way, we this way," as assigned in the Folio version of the play, the Princess of France (Taffety Punk member Tonya Beckman), spoke the line, addressing it to Navarre and the lords (the line is not in the Quarto version but the preceding line is given no speech heading, so anybody could say it).

Creating a well-oiled ensemble in one day is an incredible feat, requiring not only adaptive skills among the actors but much trust, too, and this company was tighter than some I've seen performing after months of rehearsals. And while the inherent spontaneity of the performance coupled with the actors' individual skills and verse-speaking expertise get much credit for the production's high-quality Shakespeare, superb ensemble work was responsible for the night's highlight: the Muscovite scene.

The King and the three lords visiting the French ladies while disguised as Cossacks is one of my favorite scenes in the whole canon, specifically because the first time I saw it in a 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company production in London, Richard Griffiths as Navarre, Michael Pennington as Berowne, Ian Charleson as Longaville, and Paul Whitworth as Dumaine played the scene as slapstick farce. I can still see them tumbling down the theater aisle and Griffiths' subtle ridiculousness in his furry hat. As with the rude mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare leaves so much of this scene's execution in the hands of the players and their director, so its comic potential is bound only by their imaginations. And when those imaginations run wild, it can leave an audience laughing to tears. Many productions of Love's Labour's Lost I've seen since that first one squeezed this scene into the play's otherwise lyrical tone and verse formality, leaving us merely amused.

This production's Muscovites were so wildly imaginative they made even Rosaline (Taffety Punk's Esther Williamson) give in to fits of laughter. These were not ubiquitous Russians but, specifically, a Russian Bear, a leather-jacketed Moscow mobster, Vladimir Putin, and Sputnik—I think (an aluminum foil helmet with antenna type rods sticking up from the shoulders). The four lords were definitely getting in touch with their inner Muscovites. Navarre was inside the bear costume, and Taffety Punk's Dan Crane played the king as an earnest teddy bear. Longaville (Folger and STC mainstay Chris Genebach), who delightedly had devised the penalty of cutting out women's tongues if they should come near Navarre's academy, dressed as the mobster. The politically minded Dumaine (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) wore the paper Putin mask. Berowne was Sputnik. Why, specifically, I'm not sure, but it does fit Shawn Fagan's nervous-energy, self-conscious reading of Berowne, constantly in motion orbiting either the Navarre lords or the Princess' party. Then again, only a Berowne who constantly pokes fun at everything would come up with something so outlandish and crafty as a Sputnik disguise.

These choices were funny in themselves, but the actors pulled off the trick that good sports mascots do so well: though their heads have only one expression, mascots can emote so many different emotions just in the way they stop and stare. An expressionless Putin fixing Rosaline in his gaze just in itself inspired laughter even as Navarre the bear uncomfortably gestured with his paws.

Another master of the stare is Hissom. His fantastical reading of Don Armado captured the part's outlandish comedy so perfectly, but the few times a Shakespearean line didn't land with laughter, Hissom would follow with a pause, staring off into his outer sanctum, and that alone brought the house down.

High-handed hamming this may be, but this gathering, for the most part, knew their characters so well and spoke the play's obtuse verses so expertly that they not only drew out the comedy of such set pieces as the reading of Armado's two letters—the first by Crane's Navarre, the second by Jamie Beaman's Boyet—they revealed the true heart of Shakespeare's creations. Fagan approached the "Have at you then, affection's men at arms" speech as a lawyer rising to the challenge of presenting a closing argument in a trial. Beckman spoke the Princess's assurance to Navarre that "So much I hate a breaking cause to be of heavenly oaths, vow'd with integrity" with such multi-layered irony that we could see through the comment to the verbal trap she's about to spring on Navarre several lines hence. Hissom turned Armado's soliloquy railing at Cupid, "his disgrace is to be called boy," into something approaching a Verdi aria. Fagan's Berowne soon followed with his own soliloquy on Cupid, "this whimpled, shining, purblind, wayward boy," which he delivered in a self-deprecating fit mirroring Armado's speech—it's a funhouse mirror, perhaps, but this production cleverly connected the two soliloquys as Shakespeare probably intended.

Fagan's Berowne also delivered the night's funniest line: as the country folk approach to present their play of the Nine Worthies to the two courts, Navarre protested that "they will shame us: let them not approach." Fagan paused for just a sitcom beat before replying, "We are shame-proof, my lord," a delivery so honest not only for Berowne and his fellow lords who had presented themselves to their love objects as a satellite, a bear, a Moscow mobster, and Putin, but for Fagan and his fellow actors who had presented themselves to us as a satellite, a bear, a Moscow mobster, Putin, a glam Spaniard, Daisy Duke, a Sheldon-like geek, and all the rest.

There is no shame in doing Shakespeare so raw when it's so well done, too.

Eric Minton
August 9, 2013

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