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Love’s Labour’s Lost

Building a History

Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, May 16, 2019, B-1&3 (orchestra, front)
Directed by Vivienne Benesch

Production photo of Berowne standing on a library study table as the other lords gather around.
Berowne (Zachary Fine, in red striped pajamas) encourages his love-smitten fellows, the King of Navarre (Joshua David Robisnon, right, in silk pajamas), Dumaine (Jack Schmitt in purple striped PJs), and Longaville (Matt Dallal, in shorts) to break their celibacy oaths and pursue the ladies they love in Folger Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Folger Theatre.

I digress. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has begun a $69 million renovation, a project that includes creating a public pavilion and new exhibition space under the front lawn, public gardens on either side, new study rooms for researchers, an education laboratory offering flexible space for demonstrations and workshops, and general sprucing up. One outcome will be a permanent public display of the library’s 82 First Folios, the largest collection of the 1623 publication of William Shakespeare’s collected works. This spring the library kicked off The Wonder of Will campaign to raise $50 million to support the renovations. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2022.

The library never passes up an opportunity to be uniquely relevant in a Shakespearean kind of way, so its current temporary exhibit in the Great Hall, “A Monument to Shakespeare,” recounts the initial design and construction of the Folger Shakespeare Library itself, which opened April 23, 1932. If I were to ask what makes the Folger Shakespeare Library great, common answers would be its trove of Shakespeareana and documents housed in its vaults, particularly the collection of First Folios; the research that goes on there; the institution’s much-admired and influential education programs; its theatrical productions; or just the fact that it has Shakespeare as its middle name. Often overlooked among the Folger’s contributions is the building itself. Combining classicism and art deco, the Folger Shakespeare Library became an architectural prototype for public buildings and monuments that would, like the library’s education programs, become ubiquitous across the nation.

The exhibit uses personal correspondence, architectural drawings and diagrams, and photographs to show the building's evolution and details. Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger, who had become avid Shakespearean collectors, established the library near the nation’s capitol building as gift to the American people. They worked closely with architect Paul Philippe Crete and consulting architect Alexander Trowbridge to achieve just the right combination of a look that was both classic and modern, of a function that was both library and museum, and of a purpose that was both a memorial and a research center. You see these ideas develop through the letters and drawings. For example, the Folgers realized that East Capitol Street, which the library fronts, would be a main avenue for traffic. So, they had the nine bas reliefs featuring scenes from Shakespeare’s plays placed under the columnar windows—at car level—rather than at the top (perhaps the Folgers envisioned the age of selfies, too). Folger also wanted the theater patterned after Shakespeare’s Globe, but he realized that scholarship on that subject was still developing and Crete’s design could quickly become obsolete. So, Crete used as his inspiration for the theater an Elizabethan courtyard where touring players often performed.

It is into that theater we now progress for a production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. And what do we see upon entering? The Folger Library. Lee Savage’s set replicates one end of the Paster Reading Room, with the Seven Ages of Man stained glass window towering above a double stairway. The walls are lined with cases of books and statuary (Shakespeare, Cupid), library study tables occupy the stage, and the center doors open to a view of the U.S. Capitol. Scenic designers for Folger productions notoriously have wrangled with the theater’s two giant wood pillars, stretching their imaginations for ways to utilize them, mask them, and even make fun of them. Here’s a set in which the two columns seamlessly fit in structurally and thematically. Working at one of the tables is Longaville (Matt Dallal), one of the three lords who joins the King of Navarre’s academy. The librarian, Nathaniel (Susan Rome), enters to shush Longaville, the jazz music playing on a phonograph (inside an antique world globe), and audience’s cell phones. The Tracy Christensen–designed costumes place the production circa 1930, with three-piece suits for Navarre (Joshua David Robinson) and his lords and flapper dresses for the Princess of France (Amelia Pedlow) and her ladies. Boyet, played by Tonya Beckman, wears a rakish pantsuit.

The production's visual connection of the Folger and his library ends with the set and costumes. The spiritual connection of play to place is more overarching. Love’s Labour’s Lost, like the Folger Library, is a space of yearning for learning, of a feast of words, of noble pursuits of arts and culture, and of poetic ponderings on love and beauty. The play’s director, Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, writes in her program notes, “A place of great reverence for learning, particularly dedicated to the use of Shakespeare as a ‘living art,’ the Folger celebrates one of history’s greatest teachers of the human condition and his unparalleled use of language to understand that condition.”

Benesch’s production also captures another aspect of the Folger experience: a space of play and community accessible to people of all social substrata. From the congenial embrace Navarre uses to greet Longaville and Dumain (Jack Schmitt) to start the play—delayed by the late arrival of Berowne (Zachary Fine)—to Don Armado’s (Eric Hissom’s) bittersweet play-closing benediction, Benesch adroitly blends the play’s elegiac tones, satirical streaks, and slapstick elements into a wholly Folger-like embodiment of fun, passion, beauty, and humanity.

The early Depression-era setting goes beyond being a visual touchstone to the May 1930 laying of the Folger’s cornerstone. Benesch was inspired by the opportunity to set her production in “a disconsolate period that begged for buoyancy, that was rife with the desire for both political and personal betterment (the New Deal was imminent), that was poised for women’s individuation, and which generated a popular culture that delighted in verbal repartee.” The costuming points in two directions. The noble classes maintain the fashions of the Roaring Twenties now past. Costard “the swain” (Edmund Lewis) is dressed as the court's maintenance man in workers coveralls and a tool belt around his waist. It is he who, in the play, speaks truths about the true nature of man, who, in the play within the play, brings Don Armado’s affectations to earth, and, as representative of a socialogical class, would come to rule this world.

The costuming also makes a physio-intellectual impact. Flapper dresses are hot, and Pedlow wears a form-fitting sequined dress that matches her sparkle-eyed countenance. What distinguishes Pedlow's Princess, however, is her intellect, which sharpens when she feels cornered, warms when she feels fellowship, and gallops when she is most introspective. Navarre may have fallen for her eyes, but his fascination seems to have stopped there, and the Princess’s already honed intelligence overwhelms his obsession with his own intellectual enterprises. Robinson’s Navarre is a great guy, charming and earnest, but his best intentions keep slamming up against his inability—or lack of effort—to fathom what’s inside the face and body he’s so smitten with.

The Princess and Rosaline (Kelsey Rainwater) never take seriously the men’s overtures of love; they are convinced the lords are mocking them (read that word mock not so much as making fun of but making light of). The Princess harps on how the king makes and breaks vows, and no matter how much he squirms he cannot escape her harsh judgment on that score. Her demand that he spend a year of poverty in a hermitage before she’ll acquiesce to marry him is a true test of his vow of constancy. Berowne has an incredibly intellectual wit, but he uses it for establishing dominance over men and seducing women. Rosaline is his match (this production illustrates how much these two are prototypes for Much Ado About Nothing’s Benedick and Beatrice). She cannot be so won, and her test of his love is equally apt: Berowne must learn to blend his intelligence with humanity, then she’ll have him. In Fine’s portrayal, Berowne has already begun doing that, and maybe Rosaline sees that as a glimmer of hope.

Fine has a tempestuous relationship with Shakespeare's verse structure; at times he makes the rhyming couplets flow with astute rhythm, at times his halting deliveries upend the verses’ meter. He certainly has Shakespeare bona fides on his resume, including with Fiasco Theater, so he could be revealing Berowne’s arrogance at work, especially in his self-flagellating, Cupid-bashing speech (which is, after all, a passionate outburst of ego). It's funny stuff, the veteran actor, who also teaches clowning and games at New York University, playing to the audience (he even hands his draft sonnet to a patron, admonishing him to keep quiet in the other lords’ presence). Then comes Berowne’s “Have at you, then, affection’s men at arms” speech to his fellows—a legal treatise on how the men can break their vows of three-year celibacy without feeling guilty about it. Fine bares Berowne’s rawest emotions, making them the conduit through which Shakespeare’s sublime poetry flows. Watching the other lords sitting on the floor staring up at Berowne with deeply contemplative gazes, I realized I was doing the same thing. In this moment of humility, Berowne turns a poet's trope, ladies’ eyes, into a revelation: it is through ladies' eyes that we guys see and feel the wonders of the world; it is in the reflection of ladies' eyes that we see our true selves. “Love, first learned in a lady's eyes, lives not alone immured in the brain; but, with the motion of all elements, courses as swift as thought in every power, and gives to every power a double power, above their functions and their offices.”

Yet still they disguise themselves as Cossacks to visit the ladies. Why?! Guys are so dumb, yes, but I’ve never fully understood this plot point except that it provides one of the funniest slapstick scenes in all of Shakespeare. Then, as the disguised ladies have switched the love tokens the men sent them, the follow-up scene in which they trap the men into making empty vows yet again is sophisticated, character-driving humor. In quick succession, we return to ridiculous slapstick with the rustics performing the Nine Worthies, and just as the merriment reaches its most rambunctious point, tragic news clouds the sun and rains consequences on the lords' affections.

Benesch does some delicate cutting of the text, removing much of the obtuse puns that Mote and Costard engage in but otherwise making judicious trims to bring the play in at a swiftly passing 2:15. One of her chief achievements was putting together an ensemble of gifted actors who individually and collectively balance the play's physical humor with its sophisticated wit: a great feast of words breaking into occasional food fights. Folger veteran Louis Butelli plays the intellectual blowhard schoolmaster Holofernes with sophisticated oblivion and great ego. His trashing of Don Armado’s way of talking is funny in his line deliveries and ironic in the way Holofernes also is describing his own way of talking. In regendering Nathaniel (and translating her title of curate into a more modern meaning of the word by making her a librarian), the production laces their intellectual relationship with sexual lust. Butelli presents Holofernes’ elaborate verbosity as his mating dance while Rome gives Nathaniel’s fawning responses a flirtatious flair.

Production photo of Berowne, in white dinner, black bowtie and pants, kneeling before Rosaline.
Berowne (Zachary Fine), begs the love of Rosaline (Kelsey Rainwater) in the Folger Theatre production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Watching, from left to right, are Maria (Yesenia Iglesias), Katherine (Chani Wereley), Boyet (Tonya Beckman), and the Princess of France (Amelia Pedlow). Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Folger Theatre.

Hissom has played Don Armado on this stage before, in the Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s 2013 Bootleg Shakespeare. In that production, rehearsed and performed in one day, Hissom delivered a fantastical Armado and turned miss-landed jokes into comic gems merely by outstaring the audience’s incomprehension. This time, Hissom is a more refined Armado, a professional soldier who seeks to reside in the highest order of cultured humanity but is consumed by base love for a base wench, Jaquenetta (Beckman). His overwhelming passion lead to some pronounced gestures, such as licking the envelope containing his love note to Jaquenetta with lusty fervor. Mostly, though, Hissom's only embelishment of this golden comic role is his lithe readings of his Spanish-accented lines, especially when he tries to emulate Holofernes' affected way of speaking: “I do ack-sure you,” he begins a passage, looking at Holofernes with some uncertainty, but ends the passage much more confidently as he “craves your ack-sistance.” Hissom develops a tender comic dual with another Folger vet, Megan Graves, who yet again is playing a boy on this stage, the page Mote, and he finds kindred spirits to his love-altered self among members of the audience. Still, Hissom derives dramatic depth in Don Armado, the humor of his silly behavior building upon an honest passion within the man’s heart and loins. His earnest intent to redeem himself after the consequences of his love for Jacquenetta come to light serves as an exemplary attitude for the king and his lords to emulate as they face their own yearlong trials for love.

“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo,” Don Armado says after the play’s melancholy twist pierces the height of its slapstick hijinks. He is the most suitable character to make that proclamation of truth. “You that way,” he says to the audience: “We this way.” This is Hissom as Don Armado, so the line wins a genial chuckle, but it heralds the conclusion of another joyful, communal experience of art, fellowship and deepening understanding of the human condition—in other words, a communal experience of Shakespeare—at the Folger Shakespeare Library. There will be more in the years to come.

Eric Minton
May 23, 2019

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