By John Lyle Belden
Did William Shakespeare invent the sitcom?
In a wacky set-up worthy of a TV yuk-fest, or even an old Abbot and Costello romp, a group of proud manly-men determine they are so serious to improve their minds that they pledge to ignore the urges of other, more primal, body parts for three whole years. But within minutes, they are visited by beautiful women – one for each of them – and, suddenly, “What oath?! I don’t remember promising anything!”
That, loosely, is the plot of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” one of the Bard’s early comedies, but a play he took great pains to craft, as it was performed for Queen Elizabeth herself. Thus we deal in the realms of nobility and courtly love. The master of our men is the King of Navarre (little kingdom between Spain and France) and his three nobles were named after popular figures of the era. The visiting party is led by the Princess of France, to discuss a deal for the lands of Aquitaine (a highly valued southern French region), but once she learns of the men’s allegedly binding oath, she puts up with being camped outside the Navarre court with her ladies as an opportunity to indulge in some fun. To please its sophisticated audience, the dialogue is woven with all manner of clever and complex speech – even when topics get a bit bawdy.
To further spice the plot, visiting Spanish noble Armado (not bound by a chaste oath) fancies the love of commoner Jaquenetta. This story crosses streams with the main one when simpleton Costard switches a love letter to her with one intended for a lady of the Princess’s company.
So much going on, and fortunately Bard Fest provides plenty of talent to pull it off. Aaron Jones is noble, in charge, and a little lonely as our King, tutor to Chris Bell as Longaville, Colby Rison as Dumaine, and Matt Hartzburg as Berowne, who resists taking the oath, but reluctantly signs. John Mortell is wonderfully blustery as smitten Armado, attended faithfully by page boy Mote (a sly yet exceptional performance by Justina Savage). Gorgi Parks Fulper charms as Jaquenetta. JB Scoble is scene-stealing Costard, playing the goof to the hilt. Connor Phelan is Dull – that’s the constable’s name and the man’s personality, which Phelan hilariously commits to. We also have Dan Flahive as schoolmaster Holofernes and Thom Johnson as Sir Nathanial, who organize an entertainment for the royal visitors.
Attending the Princess (Jennifer Kaufmann) are Maria (Brittany Davis), who is sweet on Longaville; Katherine (Abigail Simmon), who thinks Dumaine is kinda cute; and Rosaline (Rachel Kelso), who has her eye on Berowne. Kaufmann maintains royal bearing throughout, but with Kelso, in her exchanges with Hartzburg, we see an early version of Shakespeare’s trope of the smart-alec man verbally sparring with the clever woman, sparks of which kindle romance. Director John Johnson takes a hands-on approach by taking the role of the ladies’ escort, Lord Boyet.
In all, this is a fun entertainment full of clever wit and colorful characters, with little in the way of big lessons other than the Princess learning that the time for fun inevitably ends, and our gentlemen exchanging an oath made lightly for a more serious pledge. Being a less-familiar play, I’ll spoil this no further.
Performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 29-31, at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.