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Love’s Labour’s Lost

Youth is Served, and Serves Well

4615 Theatre Company, St. Stephens and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016, Second row on side of arena-style studio theater
Directed by Anne Donnelly

Berowne is young, brash, ballsy, a bit of a bully, and so Millennial. I'll let you apply your own judgment, good, bad, indifferent, or ambivalent, to that tag; I'm using Millennial here as a context for the young group of actors comprising the 4615 Theatre Company and their current production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.

"This company is giving young career artists something creative to do when we're not going to classes or running coffee for the big boys," says 4615 Founding Artistic Director Jordan Friend, himself a recent graduate of the theater program at Ithaca College in New York. And that spirit is the underpinning of this Love's Labour's Lost. "As a group of young people emerging into adulthood, we were surprised to find the story so contemporary and relevant to our own lives," the play's director and company's managing director, Anne Donnelly, writes in her program notes.

Holofernes in an academic gown and morter board with a finger up to his lips and his left hand on his hips talking as Nathanial kneels on one knee to cast a metal ball down an Astroturf rug where two other balls already sit: in the background, on a stage  are trellises of roses on wheeled countertops
Holofernes (John Burghardt, left) goes off on one of his scholastic contemplations during a game of bowls with Sir Nathaniel (Andy Penn) in the 4615 Theatre Company's production of Love's Labour's Lost in the fellowship hall of St. Stephens and the Incarnation Church in Washington, D.C. Except for these two actors, the rest of the cast is comprised of young actors. Photo courtesy of 4615 Theatre Company.

As a company focused on being a creative outlet for dawn-of-career actors, Friend and Donnelly have the 4615 specializing in what he calls "Neo-Jacobean plays" staged in "untraditional spaces." They choose plays not only for their quality but for the challenges they present the company; only then do they determine the kind of venue where they would like to stage it in. Love's Labour's Lost is playing in repertoire with Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women in the fellowship hall of St. Stephens and the Incarnation Church, an Episcopalian church in the economic and culturally mixed neighborhood of Columbia Heights. Two rows of folding chairs line either side of their play space, 40 seats in all, and more than half are filled on this night. Friend says that despite the company's wandering ways, a cult following finds its productions.

4615 fosters a community spirit even in the environs of its productions. No wall divides play space from back stage. Actors and the creative crew are coming and going as patrons trickle in and take their seats. At the end of the play's first half, Friend, who is playing Don Adriano de Armado, comes on stage to inform us it's time for a 15-minute intermission and invites the audience to free sodas off to the side. The cast remains in the room, milling with audience members. Clearly, some are the actors' friends or family, but not all. "Two minutes," Friend shouts, and we saunter back to our seats.

However, the fourth wall sets in as soon as the play starts. Except for a wire sculpted doe, in a mating dance with a buck (or, rather, a pricket) for the opening scene, nosing a patron, cast members never interact with or direct-address the audience. Even during the ending song, with the actors lined up on both sides of the stage facing the audience, they sing to imaginary exit signs over our heads.

The talent spectrum is what you might expect of a group of mostly young adults still in the early stages of their pursuit of acting careers: not unlike a Minor League baseball team on which some players will never make it to the Majors, a few are solid prospects, and a couple already belong in The Show. When it comes to a Shakespeare play, especially one with the lexical acrobatics of Love's Labour's Lost, that makes for an uneven presentation. Many cast members are speaking their verses as if they don't fully understand what they are saying, or they rush through passages as if hurrying the lines might make them more intelligible.

Those who do have a grasp of Shakespeare's verse correspondingly have a full grasp on their characters and present the most engaging performances. In addition to Morgan Sendek as Moth, who makes sense of the page's obtuse humor, a talent certainly ready for the big leagues is Alexandra Nicopoulos as the Princess of France, who captures one of the most complex female characters in the Shakespeare canon. Nicopoulos's Princess is a young woman who turns a diplomatic mission for her ailing father into a road trip with her girlfriends (her ladies in waiting), Rosaline (Caroline McQuaig), Katharine (Sophie DeLeo), and Maria (on this evening played by Donnelly filling in for Caroline Maloney who had a family emergency). The Princess combines her trained grace and sense of command with a giddy spirit and melds her accomplished talents and wit into a prankster's personality (if anybody is looking for Shakespeare's depiction of his own Queen Elizabeth, it just might be this Princess). With costuming by Claire Brown and Paul Hogan setting the play in the mid 1950s, the four women in shin-length, colorful skirts, jackets, silk scarves, and sunglasses (scarves and sunglasses serve as the visors in their meeting with the Muscovite-disguised Navarre lords) arrive at Ferdinand's court carrying classic, pastel-colored Samsonite suitcases.

The four lords with whom they tangle wits come off as frat boys. Longaville (Drew Bowers) is the good-looking jock, Dumain (Jason Martin) the self-styled sensitive artist, Berowne (Nick Byron) the awesomely cool smart aleck, and Ferdinand (Charlie Cook) the fraternity president, slightly older and more refined than the rest. He is, of course, the King of Navarre, but this production doesn't play up royalty. Cook's Ferdinand has a definite ceremonial role but is only the leader by virtue of his age and position in the fraternity: Byron's Berowne has the real power among this quartet. Meanwhile, the foursome from France aren't so much a royal train but a clique with a Princess B, plus a second Queen B in attitude if not in title as McQuaig's Rosaline is strident in her superior attitude toward not only the men but her two peers, too (she knows her boundaries with the Princess).

Rosaline, however, assesses Byron's Berowne perfectly: "Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Berowne, before I saw you; and the world's large tongue proclaims you for a man replete with mocks, full of comparisons and wounding flouts, which you on all estates will execute that lie within the mercy of your wit." This is exactly the self-centered, sense-of-entitled Berowne that Byron plays, one who whines like a teen-ager told to take out the trash, who is rude toward the Princess and tyrannically demanding of Rosaline's love, and who lords his intelligence over the other lords (but they enable him at every turn; he obviously has the richest parents). He's all over the place, emotionally and physically, prowling the stage like a West Side Jet ready to POW!

Byron is especially animated when he speaks Berowne's "Have at you then, affection's men at arms" speech. It comes off as something closer to Henry V's "Once more unto the breach" exhortations than the legal treatise that it is—and I love it. This is a spirited rendition of Berowne's illogically logical argument encouraging his fellows to dispense with their solemn vows of abstinence and just go forth and get laid. However, what resonates most in this presentation is the second sentence. "Consider what you first did swear unto," he tells the other lords: "To fast, to study, and to see no woman; flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth."

This particular Berowne is young, not long out of college if at all, and he doesn't just believe in and adhere to the "kingly state of youth," he treats that state as if all the world should bow to it. It is that spirit which guides this staging of Love's Labour's Lost, which could even describe the company's approach to its purpose. If its members haven't yet achieved the training and experience to be cast as Berowne and Rosaline in established companies, they will create a world where they can play them, anyway. This is legitimate, too, for it affords them a creative outlet and the experience they need and gives audiences a fresh, youth-centric perspective on classic works.

That this production is so vigorously youthful casts new dimensions on the play itself, especially among the central characters of the Navarre lords and French ladies. The men's courting and the women's responding attraction come off as superficial, as if both sides are playing at romance, though they'd like to believe their intentions are real. Watching in the context of today's sexual norms, we might think they see the hookup as the ultimate point. In the play's 1950s setting, we older viewers can lean on Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" as a point of reference, even though the women aren't asking for a lifetime vow—yet—just a one-year waiting period. We can't be sure any of them, guys or gals, will last out a week in their feelings, let alone a year. Berowne—for whom Rosaline's verdict that he visit "the speechless sick and still converse with groaning wretches" every day for a year is the worst of all community service sentences—agrees to the challenge with an "I'll show her" bravado, but he's displayed his abilities to wittily talk himself out of any vow he's made to himself and others.

Yet, we get a wonderful moment after the Princess, in a preview of the "holy palmers' kiss" in Romeo and Juliet, places her "virgin palm now kissing thine" against Ferdinand's palm. "If this thou do deny," she continues, referring to her request that he spend the interim year in a hermitage, "let our hands part, neither entitled in the other's heart." Just as she's pulling back her hand, however, Cook's Ferdinand wraps his fingers through hers; it's such a smooth move it takes your breath away.

The staging of the "four woodcocks in a dish" scene, when each of the lords enter one after the other reading their love sonnets and then hiding to spy on the next lord doing so, is deliciously done, too. Berowne, first on stage, hides behind the arras and, looking over the top, visually mocks the king (second on), who tears up his sonnet and then stealthily scrambles to gather up the scraps with the entrance of Longaville, who hides upon Dumain's entrance by crouching behind the bench that Dumain sits on, using Longaville's back to support himself. Longaville jumping up to accost Dumain is a gotcha moment for him and us, and the subsequent reveals follow in funny form.

On the other hand, a less-than-firm grip on the script does result in some puzzling moments. Even though Don Armado is, according to Costard, the father of Jaquenetta's baby, she is paired with Costard among the love couples in the final tableaux. Boyet (Susannah Clark) is presented as incompetent, which undermines the character's place in the plot. Boyet also describes to the Princess how Ferdinand was "infected" upon meeting her, how "all his behaviors did make their retire to the court of his eye, peeping thorough desire," but we certainly didn't see that in Cook's Ferdinand when he first meets the Princess. Cook also rushes through Ferdinand's reading of Don Armado's letter so that we lose the humor of it. As this is our introduction to the Spanish blowhard, the running joke of how he "draweth out the thread of his verbosity" doesn't have the legs it should (Friend uses a strong Spanish accent that tends to blur the character's wordy ways, but he does romantic affectation well).

By contrast, Nicopoulos's Princess reads Don Armado's second letter so succinctly, one audience member looks on dumbfounded that Berowne could write such a thing, thus landing the joke Shakespeare intended (we don't know that Costard, delivering the two letters to two different recipients, has mixed up them up until the Princess gets to the signature of the letter she's reading).

Another fun comic moment is extra-textual: a guitar-playing Don Armado dueling with Costard (Will Anderson) in song as they both court Jaquenetta (Jamie O'Brien). Both men give over-the-top performances, and as Jaquenetta leaves in disinterest, the two obliviously continue their duel as a duet. When they realize the object of their affections has left, they shrug and continue with their duet. What raises this funny scene to comic genius, however, is O'Brien's Jaquenetta. She's no slut (despite how she's reported), just a young woman who can emote irony with the best of them. Her matter-of-fact manner, expression of forced politeness, and building exasperation as she is beset by these weird suitors provide keen contextual hilarity.

By contrast, two other performances that stand out have everything to do with verbal delivery. Moth, Armado's page, is a role that relies on obtuse puns and an elite wit, way beyond what wit I have. Sendek's resumé includes playing with Brave Spirits, another D.C. company specializing in Shakespeare and Shakespeare-contemporary plays, and she expertly delivers Moth's lines, making them accessible to modern ears. John Burghardt, meanwhile—who, with Andy Penn playing Sir Nathaniel are senior members in this company—steps away from playing Holofernes, the pedantic schoolmaster, as an obnoxiously pompous intellectual. Instead, his Holofernes is an infatuated scholar, turning every person, image, or word he encounters into a scholastic, stream-of-conscience contemplation—a college professor with his head in the clouds looking for enlightenment and seeing it flash with every blink of his eye. "Here are only numbers ratified," he says of Berowne's waylaid sonnet to Rosaline, and then continues in a rambling mumble more to himself than others; "but, for the elegancy, facility, and golden cadence of poesy, caret. Ovidius Naso was the man: and why, indeed, Naso, but for smelling out the odoriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention? Imitari is nothing: so doth the hound his master, the ape his keeper, the tired horse his rider." I've seen this kind of guy at too many post-play talk-back sessions: irritating in that setting, funny here.

Love's Labour's Lost ends with a song, the Cuckoo and the Owl, and, with original music by Friend (playing acoustic guitar while other cast members have percussion instruments), the cast gives a thrilling rendition, with beautiful solos from O'Brien (Jaquenetta) and Sendek (Moth) leading into a soaring choral harmony by the rest of the cast. It goes on a bit long, perhaps because Friend and Donnelly know they have hit a high note of the production, as it were, so they milk it. But that's OK: if youth be the food to their theatrical ambition, play on.

Eric Minton
August 5, 2016

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