'Love's Labor's Lost' a colorful find

    OSF photo / Jenny Graham Richard Howard, left, Robin Goodrin Nordli and Chris Butler in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Love's Labor's Lost."

    The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is a wacky, wonderful theatrical production that uses the bones of the play to craft a colorful, musical experience.

    Directed by Amanda Dehnert, the play opened Sunday in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

    Dehnert takes the play in unexpected directions, and this zany production is as much Marx Brothers as it is Shakespeare.

    Shakespeare explores language to its fullest in “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” a panoply of fun with puns, jests and witticisms as he experiments with rhetorical devices. Dehnert’s interpretation amplifies and extends that with color, music and confusion.

    Song is largely absent from the traditional play, some scholars saying that Shakespeare’s limited use of song was meant to refocus the production on life and death, beginnings and endings. If that is the case, then Dehnert turns tradition on its head. Music and singing throughout advances the commotion that abounds, increases the diversions in the production and enhances the sense of play.

    The story is as we know it: Ferdinand, the King of Navarre (Daniel José Molina), and his lords (Stephen Michael Spencer, Jeremy Gallardo and William Thomas Hodgson, respectively, as Berowne, Longaville and Dumain) take a three-year vow of chastity. The Princess of France (Alejandra Escalante) and her ladies (Jennie Greenberry, Niani Feelings and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively, as Rosaline, Maria and Katharine) cavort in the woods outside the King’s gates.

    Vilma Silva as Boyet serves as chaperone to the ladies and spies on their behalf. Amusements, pranks and mischief ensue and then end suddenly with the death of the King of France. All pledge their troth and to wait 12 months to consummate their love.

    Here’s where Dehnert gives license to her wild imagination.

    White-garbed lords press their hands into blue paint and mark their heart, a visible sign of their oath. White-garbed ladies outline their breasts and paint their bellies in red, touching their bodies and thrilling their minds. What lord can possibly resist the call of these Sirens? Berowne certainly cannot and is the first to fall headlong into desire.

    We saw some of Molina’s playful side in the role of young Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Part 1.” Molina’s gift for comedic exaggeration is even more evident as Ferdinand, his slim, flexible body bowing in excitement, and huge eyes signaling surprise and alarm in the confusion of activity.

    The opposite of Molina and his troupe are Escalante and her court of three. These women are splendid, no wilting pansies, and Escalante as the Princess of France has the sharpest of tongues, the best and most biting lines of the bunch.

    As sport becomes grander, more complicated and confusing, the colors fly, and white clothes become rainbows of green, yellow, purple and red, reflecting the bulbs strung across the theater. Early on, watch for the caterpillar train of the men, head to butt to avoid gazing on a woman, the women in full-dance revue. Later the incompetent and utterly hilarious Muscovite troupe entertains, the masked men in Russian robes and the women all in splendid red, beads and chiffon hats.

    Farcical authorities regularly pop out of the floor (Armando Duran, Robin Goodrin Nordli and Chris Butler) eating lunch, proclaiming wisdoms and doing the crossword puzzle. Nordli organizes the group into the Nine Worthies, as a Beat production complete with multiple transparency projectors and herself on flute; this is the oddest representation of medieval chivalric values you’ll ever see.

    The play’s opening night was especially remarkable because of the rain that threatened to drown the production. The band equipment was protected by tarps, and even after the trumpet sounded, stage hands squeegeed the boards to clear some of the water. The Tudor Guild must have made a million selling plastic ponchos for $3 and black garbage bags for 50 cents, and the audience waited until just the last moment to settle into their seats. There were no wild ensemble dance scenes or massive sword fights that would endanger the company; nevertheless, chaos abounded and the cast was particularly careful as young loves ran amuck in the forest.

    And what of Shakespeare’s final song, a somber reminder of mortality at the death of the King of France? In the OSF production, the cast does soberly assemble all dressed in black, holding umbrellas as if at a burial. To the audience’s great merriment, their song is of standing in the rain, sheltered by love as hoses spray water out over the stage.

    “Love’s Labor’s Lost” continues through Oct. 14. For more information and to buy tickets, see www.osfashland.org.

    Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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