Tuesday, July 21, 2015

LOVE'S LABOURS' LOST and WON at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Love's Labour's Lost is that rare bird, a romantic comedy without a happy ending. It begins when the King of Navarre proposes a contract with three lords of his court, whereby all four agree to foreswear love and female companionship in order to concentrate on scholarly pursuits. That pact lasts about five minutes (okay, more like half an hour in theatrical time) until a lovely princess and three of her ladies arrive on the King's doorstep. Hijinks ensue -- secret mash notes, costumes and disguises, a crazy Spaniard in a love triangle, a couple of pompous academics gumming up the works -- until everyone has fallen under the spell of the "whimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy" known as Cupid.

Happily ever after, right? Not so fast. No sooner have our lovers paired up than bad news arrives for the princess. She and her ladies must depart, postponing their affairs of the heart until some later date. In the language of the play, when Love's Labour's Lost has ended,"Jack hath not Jill."

That "to be continued" ending begs for Part II, to tell us if the various Jacks and Jills ever find their way back up that hill. There are indications that a Love's Labour's Won did exist at some point, although the clues are few, and no shred of a script survives. The Royal Shakespeare Company filled in the gap by using Much Ado About Nothing as its version of Love's Labour's Won in 2014, but that doesn't help anyone who really want to know what happened to Ferdinand of Navarre and his princess or Berowne and his Rosaline.

Playwright/director/theatrical man-of-all-work Scott Kaiser has fashioned his own sequel, one that does pick up the plot threads and the major players from Love's Labour's Lost. Kaiser's pensive, emotionally layered creation drops neatly into the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's summer schedule alongside its companion piece.

Designer Nicholas Hartman's charming costumes tell us that the Festival Love's Labour's Lost is set near the end of the Belle Époque period, with Won picking up four years later, as World War I stumbles to a close. Kaiser's script makes specific reference to an armistice and trenches, but otherwise his Won works with an alternate reality France in 1918, where there is still a king, Navarre is a sovereign land that plays into the negotiations, and the details of the peace accord are being worked out in the palace.

The two pieces fit together well at the Festival, with some -- but not much -- of the bawdy humor from Lost spilling over into Won. The bittersweet mood at the end of Lost more clearly informs Won, intersecting Shakespeare's characters with Hemingway's "Lost Generation" as we see how each of the men from the first play has been transformed by war. The King of Navarre is on the brink of losing his land and his throne, Berowne is sloshing around the bottom of a bottle, Dumaine is rich off war profits and poor Longaville is a prisoner. The ladies are less changed, although Rosaline has been dressing as a man to work as a reporter and Maria has become a diplomatic aide to the King of France.

There are other differences between the two plays, as well. Love's Labour's Lost plays out on an whimsical, airy set, beautifully designed by John C. Stark for the stage at Ewing Cultural Center, with a second-story library as well as a pretty round window, circular stairs and a forest of metal trees, all used to good effect for humor as the plot unfolds. Love's Labours Won looks smaller and more subdued tucked inside Illinois State University's Westhoff Theatre, where Jen Kazmierczak's scenic design features a cobwebbed chandelier, one golden chair, a table and a bench, with a pair of tall, gilded doors bracketing the action. The contrast is obvious and very telling.

As skillfully directed by Curt L. Tofteland, Love's Labour's Lost emphasizes its comedy, with Robert Gerard Anderson's outrageous Armado a highlight throughout. All four of the gentlemen from Navarre -- played by Thom Miller, Steve Wojtas, Colin Lawrence and Ronald Roman -- handle the humor nicely, as do the more low-rent Costard, played as a sort of burlesque comedian by Colin Trevino-Odell, and the local constable Dull, brought to life by Joey Banks.

Trevino-Odell is the one tasked with bridging the gap between laughter and tears in the second Love's Labour's, as director Sara Becker navigates the tricky waters of Love's Labour's Won and its shifting moods. Costard is now a soldier -- a corporal -- who's sustained damage to his corporeal form. This Costard is still a jokester, but Kaiser has written him with pain, too, that pays off in his fractured relationship with Jacquenetta, reimagined as a songstress played by Sara J. Griffin.

Lawrence's Longaville pulls the play all the way onto the sad side, with the formerly carefree swain now a thin and hollow-eyed prisoner, chained below the palace. Lawrence's subtle performance is emotional and moving over the course of the play, adding grace notes to Kaiser's script.

The women also become stronger and more defined in Love's Labour's Won, with the lovely Leslie Lank's princess at the head of the class. Quetta Carpenter's Rosaline isn't really believable as a man, but then, who among Shakespeare's ladies in trousers is? She is believable as a smart, somewhat jaded war correspondent, troubled by what she has seen, and that is more important. Faith Servant's sweet Katharine, a lovelorn lady with a conscience, is also nicely drawn, while Natalie Blackman's bookish Maria provides a welcome feminist note.

What stands out in this premiere of Love's Labour's Won is how well Scott Kaiser has taken on Shakespeare's turf. In the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, Kaiser's play is a worthy successor to Love's Labour's Lost. And then some.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Cultural Center

Director: Curt L. Tofteland
Voice and Text Coach: Sara Becker
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Nicholas Hartman
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Composer and Arranger: Glenn Wilson
Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller

Cast: Thom Miller, Leslie Lank, Steve Wojtas, Quetta Carpenter, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Henson Keys, Robert Gerard Anderson, Sara J. Griffin, Colin Lawrence, Natalie Blackman, Ronald Roman, Faith Servant, Colin Trevino-Odell, Bethany Hart, Robert Michael Johnson, Graham Gusloff, Joey Banks, Nathaniel Aikens, Dario Carrion, Kaitlyn Wehr and Glenn Wilson.

Remaining performances: July 23, 26, 29 and 31; August 2, 5 and 8.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission. For ticket information, click here.

By Scott Kaiser

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Sara Becker
Assistant Director: Joey Banks
Scenic Designer: Jen Kazmierczak
Costume Designer: Nicholas Hartman
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Audio System Designer: Aaron Paolucci
Composer and Arranger: Glenn Wilson
"No Goin' Back" Composer: Casey James
Stage Manager: Audra Kuchling

Cast: Henson Keys, Leslie Lank, Quetta Carpenter, Faith Servant, Natalie Blackman, Sara J. Griffin, Thom Miller, Steve Wojtas, Ronald Roman, Colin Lawrence and Colin Trevino-Odell.

Remaining performances: July 22, 24, 26 and 28; August 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7.

Running time: 2:10, including one 15-minute intermission. For ticket information, click here.

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