Heidi Bakke, Steve Epp and Nathan Keepers in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Photo- Richard Tyler Rowley
Love’s Labour’s Lost
By William Shakespeare
Reimagined by Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers, and Dominique Serrand
Directed by Dominique Serrand
Review by E. P. Stewart
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by E. P. Stewart. All rights reserved.
It is difficult in an artistic community as tight-knit as Louisville’s to be critical of theatrical work. Many of the contributors at Arts-Louisville are performers ourselves, and as such we are particularly sensitive to the fact that every show is the result of tremendous effort, dedication, and soul-baring. It brings no joy and offers no benefit to tear people down for doing their best. Unfortunately, the current production of Love’s Labours Lost at Actors Theatre of Louisville can only be described as an unsuccessful attempt to revitalize Shakespeare; one that frequently crosses the line from misguided or unclear to embarrassingly distasteful.
The Actors Theatre website hails their latest show as a “playful and funny reimagining… of Shakespeare’s classic comedy” and “a love letter to the Bard and his many courting couples.” I have not seen promotion so incongruous since last fall’s film release of August: Osage County, when Tracy Letts’s dark and twisted drama was heavily marketed as a heartwarming family comedy. This production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, rife with awkwardly exaggerated and irrelevant lewdness, has more in common with poorly written erotica than with a love letter. The website description offers little pertinent information and an inaccurate representation to their paying audience. It borders on irresponsible in describing the show as appropriate for children as young as 13.
This production is unequivocally inappropriate for children. A supporting example that stands out – by merit of being the first, though far from the last, instance of unnecessarily graphic behavior – occurs not far into the first act. A male character pretends his hand is that of a woman’s lover and seizes the opportunity to ferociously grope the female’s large breasts without her consent (or apparent knowledge, as she is too vapid to even notice she’s being touched). It was viscerally uncomfortable to watch this happen to the actress onstage, in real-time. In a world where women’s daily struggle against harassment and objectification has still not been adequately addressed, and where an American female stands a 1 in 6 chance of being raped in her lifetime, passing such a pointless act of violation off as lighthearted comedy is repugnant.
Some other less objectionable but more puzzling situations include: a scene in which three men inexplicably strip off their clothes and begin showering in a clear plastic box while the entirely unrelated main action tries to take place center stage, some unexpected homoerotic kissing that happens contrary to all context, and a painfully drawn-out build to climax during a lengthy monologue clumsily inserted from another of Shakespeare’s comedies. I won’t even broach the baffling occurrences of the second act.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am in no way troubled by sex in Shakespeare. His work is built on it, filled with it, and historically inaccurate without it. It’s the self-congratulatory, gratuitously shocking tone of this production that is so offensive. The original text and plot are buried under feckless shtick that impedes storytelling, character growth, and thematic development. The company insults its audience by not trusting that we are capable of appreciating the comedy as written and instead overbearingly forces every line into an irrelevant appeal to the basest of humor and instincts. The worst vulgarity by far to be found in this production is how much merit has been gutted from the original work.
If the flagship theatre of our entire region isn’t expected to bring something more to the table than this, what are we working to keep alive? What benefit is it to our community to promote such bunkum as the local pinnacle of quality and professionalism in the performing arts?
Furthermore, the performance pace is so stilted by the unnecessary additions that even much funnier material would fall flat. The actors lean heavily on physical comedy and crudeness for laughs, and honest performances suffer as a result. Lines from other works in Shakespeare’s canon are inserted throughout the original text, an interesting concept that could have blossomed into something truly unique but was not used to great effect; the introduced snippets tend to confuse the plot more than illuminate it. The revised script is also heavily pocked in performance by contemporary ad-libs that interrupt the musicality of Shakespeare’s words. This carefully crafted flow of sounds is one of the unique attributes of his work and makes it relevant and still worth revisiting nearly five centuries later. In the absence of this flow, one wonders what value the broken pieces hold beyond nostalgia or a nod to tradition.
This production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a misstep in the discourse on making Shakespeare accessible to today’s audiences. It should not be held up as an example of what theatre has to offer our community. Other local companies should not use it as a standard by which to measure or influence their own offerings. I encourage any student who sees it with their school to seek other examples of Shakespeare’s work in performance before forming opinions regarding his impact or contributions.
A theatre with the reputation and influence that Actors Theatre of Louisville commands has a responsibility to be uncommonly thoughtful and discerning in the work it chooses to produce. The citizens of Louisville and its surrounds look to Actors Theatre as an authority on what constitutes fine art, and it is vital to our local culture that Actors produce substantive work. It is also beneficial to our city for Actors Theatre to maintain its prominence in the national conversation through continued excellence. As its primary audience and source of support, Louisvillians can and should have higher expectations of this organization than the caliber of work displayed in this disappointing season opener. I look forward to seeing the rest of the year’s lineup unfold as this hopefully temporary stumble recedes into the past.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
September 2- 21, 2014
Actors Theatre of Louisville
315 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
[box_light]E. P. Stewart is proud to be a native Louisvillian and to support the city’s vibrant arts community. She has performed with several local companies and teaches in the conservatory at Walden Theatre. Emily holds a BFA from New York University. She creates audio books through her business GoBunny Media, and her work has earned multiple Audie Awards and a Grammy.[/box_light]