St. John’s College in Annapolis, the third oldest college in the USA, is known for its program of a study of the Western classics of philosophy, literature, history and science. During the month of July, the Annapolis Shakespeare Company is performing outdoors on the lawn of St. John’s College “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” a play in whichShakespeare addresses the merits of such an approach to education. Does education come through books and study, or is it found in lived experience and love?
The play is not often performed and is somewhat neglected compared to many other plays by Shakespeare, so it is worthwhile to review the plot before reviewing the show. King Ferdinand of Navarre and three courtiers attempt to create an intellectual feast upon which “the mind shall banquet” by studying the great books of Western civilization. “Our court shall be a little academy,” King Ferdinand announces, as he turns his palace into a virtual college of learning filled with books.
While the king’s intentions may be noble – think if world leaders today eschewed power politics in favor of education! - the vows under which he and his “fellow scholars” undertake their quest are very problematic: They must devote themselves exclusively to study for a period of three years, can sleep only three hours per night, eat only one meal per day, and have no contact with women during this time. Women are thus banished from the Court of Navarre. Yet political necessity – and love, described in hyperbole in the play as “a Hercules” – threaten the king’s plan!
The story of “Navarre and his book-men” – each secretly falling in love and beginning to break the “no women” vow - is an engaging one; the theme of family life and personal relationships vs. education and career seems relevant today. Why, then, is the play so rarely performed? One reason is that many of the social norms that Shakespeare satirizes have fallen out of favor. Much of the humor is based on Latin turns of phrases no longer in common use. A cumbersome fifth act is longer than most of the rest of the play and focuses on a “Masque,” a dying art form even in Shakespeare’s day which is similar to watching people perform a costume party on stage. The play’s sober-yet-hopeful ending also does not conclude quite like one would expect a romantic comedy to end today.
Every production must come to terms with these concerns, and the Annapolis Shakespeare Company production, directed by Sally Boyett and Donald Hicken, does so in creative and engaging ways. The play is updated to the Edwardian Era of the early 20th century (think “Downton Abbey”), making the setting more accessible to the audience while still keeping it set in a period in which aristocracy and social class remain strong.
An update to this time period also allows for luscious costumes, subtly color-coded to facilitate the audience’s understanding. The King of Navarre and the Princess of France all wear purple items (purple bow tie for him, purple purse and parasol for her); the costumes of other would-be couples are similarly matched. The recorded musical accompaniment is of the same era, featuring waltzes and a bit of ragtime. The overly-long Masque of the Nine Worthies, in which characters in the play represent figures from classical and biblical antiquity such as Hector, Alexander, Judas Maccabeus, and other figures from classical and biblical antiquity, is shortened to a very enjoyable and humorous dance sketch to the tune of the vaudeville chestnut “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.”
Even better, the acting in the play is superb: Berowne is played to perfection by Nate Ruleaux, channeling the various sides of his character’s personality: idealistic, realistic, sarcastic and unexpectedly smitten in love. Bethany Mayo stands out for special mention, playing two very different roles: the flirtatious lower-class Jaquenetta and the aristocratic Katherine, one of the ladies accompanying the French princess. Gus Demos is also a delight, adding visual humour to the play throughout as the lecherous and foolish Costard.
The outdoor setting in front of the former St. John’s College library with its classically Greek pillars is very pleasant on a summer evening. The production convincingly transforms this location into an English park in front of the court of Navarre and its “little academy,” with characters strolling in and out along the paths.
The Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (playing through July 29) is an accessible and humorous outdoor production that is great fun for a summer’s night in Annapolis. Its presence at the St. John’s College, with its famous “Great Books” program, inevitably leads one to ponder, like Berowne and the noblemen of Navarre, where true knowledge is to be found: is it by study of the classics? Or is it through life experience and romance, which one character calls “the books, the arts, the academes, that show, contain, and nourish all the world?” Those willing to embark on the trip to Annapolis and its outstanding Shakespeare repertory company are invited to explore this issue and be entertained royally at the same time.