Elizabeth E. Tavares (Pacific University)
In the wake of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it is easy to lose sight of other early modern productions on offer in the Pacific Northwest. One such is the nearly fifty-year-old troupe, the Portland Actors Ensemble, which puts on a mobile Shakespeare-in-the-Park summer season free to the public. This summer’s circulating production of Love’s Labour’s Lost proffered an extended meditation on the limits of male camaraderie, while making thoughtful use of non-dedicated performance spaces in the city and the country.
With such a setting, the architectural elements were kept to a minimum: a gazebo and a pillar supporting a small statue of Cupid taking aim. One of the key dramaturgical challenges of Love’s Labour’s Lost is what to do about the cascading asides called for in the last scene of act four. A tree equipped with climbing apparatus and other geological features are often brought in to provide places for the four gentlemen to hide as they watch one another perjure themselves of their initial oaths to reject female infatuation for the sake of study. Not so here. Under Monteverde’s thoughtful direction, the gentlemen attempt to hide behind the slim pillar or dive out of a fellow’s line-of-sight in order to suggest overseeing with only blocking as their guide. In this way, we were able to see all of their gestures expressing anxiety and, by extension, the stakes of betraying their lord without any prop to interrupt the audience’s view. With blocking hyper-exposing the embodiment of anxiety rather than realistically (and merely) hiding, the scene suggests elite camaraderie depends upon whether or not all the men have fallen victim to the same weakness. If so, the stakes are comic. If not, possibly treasonous.
Of especial note for their performances informed by textual cues were the roles Berowne (Andy Haftkowycz) and Costard (Jeremy Urann). Haftkowycz was able to find a middle ground to develop a Berowne who sees his fellows’ hubris from the start, but is not too knowing as to not fall for the academy of women himself. Urann’s stature and hyperbole evoked an impassioned Costard who wasn’t quite the simpleton he seemed (or the Herculean thug the play attempts to make him out to be in the end). Their exchange at the end of act three, concluding the “remuneration” gag, produced gut-wrenching laughter across the lawn—and made me wish there was at least one other wit-smithing moment they could share.
In fact, I have never longed more for the lost sequel to this play than after this production. I wanted more moments like that of the hornbook, which is often used to note the tools of early modern education to students. With the aid of an actual chalkboard substitute, the hornbook reference is not only a nod to a reality of English education, but it was, perhaps unsurprisingly for Shakespeare, a euphemism. When Don Armado inquires whether or not Costard can read, his page, Moth, responds, “Yes, yes; he teaches boys the hornbook. What is a, b, spelt backward, with the horn on his head?” Moth then draws out the letters “a,” “b”,” and then flips the board over to reveal a sketch of testes and a phallus. Costard is thus made an outsider to both the elite men due to his social status and the commoner folk in this moment of mockery. It is only in the final play-within-a-play, led by Dr. Holofernia, that Costard gains welcome to the household when his performance is remarked upon and approved by the gentlemen spectators. Scene after scene made explicit a range of interpretive options informed by the text, and in doing so gave me the sense that there still remained, even after the play, stones that could yet be unturned.
Ultimately, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a cheater’s play. It ends with a question the Navarre ladies implicitly pose to their men: if you’ve broken a vow to yourselves by falling in love with us, how can we believe you will be honest to these new vows to us? PAE’s production suggested that if all four men can either keep or break their promises to perform their designated virtues for the next year, they will, regardless of their observance, meet a desirable outcome. I’d buy another bottle to see that.
Categories: Theater Reviews