I like “As You Like It” quite a bit, can recall most of the “Midsummer Night’s Dreams” I’ve experienced, have made much ado about “Much Ado” and, if I haven’t reached it yet, I’m pretty close to having seen a dozen “Twelfth Night”s.
Yet “Love’s Labour’s Lost” remains my favorite Shakespeare comedy.
It’s an extreme minority opinion, I know. A study here shows LLL getting even fewer professional productions than “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Even many Shakespeare fans haven’t seen a live production of it.
Not having read the play (I avoid reading any Shakespeare plays until I first see them onstage), I fell hard for a production at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre in 1995 (a fire alarm disrupted the second act and, when we returned, the actors didn’t miss a beat). I got a kick out of the Kenneth Branagh’s much-maligned 2000 film version, enjoyed the recorded-from-stage Stratford Festival and Royal Shakespeare Company productions, and completely flipped over the Globe’s recording. I even chased down a little-seen updated film set in a contemporary boarding school.
And I made it a point to get to Indy Bard Fest’s production, which runs through Oct. 31 at The Cat.
After seeing it there, I remain smitten.
I’m not going to actually review it. I’ve done some projects with Bard Fest and, honestly, I’m just not up for that right now. Instead, I’d rather share my love of the play itself. Admittedly, I’m no Shakespeare scholar. I’m just a guy who loves a good play. So here are 10 reasons why a lug like me loves this one.
- It has an easy in. Very, very early in “King Lear” you know that the big guy has divided up his kingdom and banished his one truly loyal daughter. Even if you only grasp every third word, that’s easy to understand. Well, the gist of LLL is delivered just as swiftly and just as easily. Very quickly it’s understood that the King and his posse have sworn off indulgencies for years of study — and you know that that plan is doomed to fail. Much of the fun is watching how and how quickly that happens.
- It features strong women. The downfall of the boy’s plan doesn’t happen thanks to a quartet of pretty faces arriving on the scene. It happens because four smart, witty, playful-but-take-no-crap women arrive on the scene. And it’s the Princess of France who controls almost all of the action, including the ending, which I will get to shortly without, I hope, spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it.
- If you don’t worry about getting every joke, it’s a lot of fun. Yes, there’s a ton of wordplay here — and much of that can fall flat when not handled by expert actors (and even sometimes when they are). But as long as the characters appear to understand the one-upmanship of the word games, it works for me. Even when I don’t get it. (Plus, isn’t that what editing is for?)
- I’ve seen it work it’s magic. It is, of course, easier to fall in love with a play if you’ve seen an outstanding production of it. I was lucky enough to have a terrific first encounter with it in D.C. and to have watched, multiple times, the glorious Globe recording. I’m not sure who I love more, Michelle Terry as the Princess or Paul Ready’s unexpected but counter-intuitively heartbreaking Armado. Do yourself a favor and listen to the two of them talk about it here. (And it was great hearing that it’s their favorite Shakespeare comedy as well. I felt validated after listening.)
- Its clowns cross class lines.. Rather than a single clown commenting on the action or acting as an outsider, LLL has a whole tribe of knuckleheads, allowing for a wide variety of comic styles. Custard, Moth, Jaquenetta, Holofernes, Nathaniel, and Don Adriano de Armado all have opportunities to earn laughs. And, depending on the productions, most of them also have an opportunity for melancholy moments.
- Those lines! “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble,” gets me every time. As does, “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo,” “for I am for whole volumes in folio,” and “A time methinks too short to make a world-without end bargain in.” Every time I hear the play, I find more to bask in.
- And there’s Berowne and his becoming self-aware. Watching an “I’ll never fall in love” cynic fall head over heels is a delight. “And I forsooth, in love!” Not only that, but he then shares that passion with his pals. “From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive: They sparkle still the right Promethean fire; They are the books, the arts, the academes, that show, contain and nourish all the world.” And even though he doesn’t have the maturity of Rosaline, his love, Berowne knows enough by the end to actually listen to her.
- It has been turned into my favorite Shakespeare musical (even though I have yet to see that version). Many have tried to merge Shakespeare and musical theater. (“Kiss Me Kate” only half-counts), but none to me have succeeded as well as the 2013 Michael Friedman/Alex Timbers adaptation. Okay, so I didn’t actually see it. And I’m still kicking myself for missing it. But I’ve read the script and excessively played the cast recording and I’ve practically begged potential producers to stage it. It not only is one of my favorite scores of the 2000s, but it accentuates some of the best aspects of the play and gives agency to the female characters. Please. Someone. Please. (Have a taste here.)
- The ending. Under the surface of this remarkable comedy is, well, death. Earlier on, the princess kills a deer with no regrets (see also “Strong women,” above), Holofernes gets to construct a eulogy of sorts for the beast, and Katherine speaks of her dead sister. Up until the end, there’s a distance between the frivolity of the romances and the reality of death. Other Shakespeare comedies have a hint of discontent at the end — I’m thinking of the exits of Jacques and Malvolio in “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night.” But those are sidebars to the climactic celebrations. Seeing LLL again, I was reminded of why “Some Other Time” elevates the musical “On the Town”: It reminds us how little time we have, making the sweetness even sweeter. Plus it tempers romance with reality. And it gets me every time. LLL, on film, streaming, and on stage, is the only Shakespeare play that inevitably makes me cry.
- Okay, I guess I need to defend the Branagh film. Or maybe I don’t need to. I’ll just say that the Muscovite scene is a mess, the actors are nearly all too old for the parts, and, well, there, are other issues, but this is a comfort film for me and it’s first hour and final moments get me every time.