Love’s Labor’s Lost is a strikingly knowing play. Centered on four friends who rashly swear off women—only to fall in love, or think they fall in love, almost immediately afterwards—it unfolds with gentle irony, laughingly observing the absurdly narcissistic nature of most romantic tropes. The play closes—like Shakespeare’s later works The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline—on a mixed note; in fact, it is the only one of his comedies besides The Comedy of Errors that does not result in a wedding, and perhaps the only one with a patently unhappy ending. Love’s Labor’s Lost also runs wild with wordplay—Harold Bloom described it as “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none.”
What a shame, then, that the current production at the Public Lab is a dumbed-down disaster. Director Karin Coonrod has committed one of the greatest mistakes in Shakespearean comedy—she does not have faith in the text. So her actors, trying to overcompensate for non-existent flaws in the play, underline their witty, verbose dialogue with gross gesticulations. Really, Shakespeare’s language is lascivious enough—nobody needs it pointed out by an actor awkwardly gyrating his hips. This gestural excess is on full display in Samira Wiley’s (Moth) performance, as she rolls around the stage, screeching and flailing her arms as though trying to entertain a group of indifferent fifth graders. Moth is perhaps the wittiest character in the play—he certainly has the best line: “They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps”—and it is painful to see him so gutted. Steven Skybell (Holofernes), too, loads his performance with so many silly accents that it becomes embarrassing to watch him. To top it off, in the final scene, two of the characters are actually wearing funny hats, as if funny hats were ever actually funny.
Fortunately, a couple of genuinely good performances manage to sneak past Ms. Coonrod. Stephanie DiMaggio (Jaquenetta) is a sly actor, and it is a delight to watch her amused reaction to the cast of buffoons that surround her; she brings a much appreciated subtlety and even a tenderness to the part—notably, the moment where she kisses Don Armado is sobering in its sweetness. Renee Elise Goldsberry (Princess) is also quite good—she could make a fine Rosalind.
The Public Lab is a truly inspired idea: low-budget Shakespearean productions made available to nearly anyone who wants to go (all tickets are $15). But one would hope that since the stakes are relatively low, greater risks could be taken. The New York Shakespeare Exchange, for example, recently produced an excellent King John—not exactly Shakespeare’s biggest crowd pleaser—with what seemed like a handful of maxed-out credit cards. Why, then, is the Public Lab churning out this mindless garbage? If you’re going to play Shakespeare to the groundlings, you might as well stage another stultifying Midsummer—at least we expect that play to be poorly directed. But if you’re going to do Love’s Labor’s Lost, an exciting, challenging, and viciously smart work, you shouldn’t compromise with cheap laughs. Trust the text and stop dicking around.