‘Review: Love’s Labours Lost’ at 4615 Theatre Company

With the savvy direction of Anne Donnelly and the industrious labors of 4615 Theatre Company, the 400 year-old Shakespearean comedy, Love’s Labours Lost has taken a fruitful leap into the 21st Century.

John Burghardt (Holofernes) and Andy Penn (Sir Nathaniel). Photo by Clare Lockhart.
John Burghardt (Holofernes) and Andy Penn (Sir Nathaniel). Photo by Clare Lockhart.

If you don’t know 4615 Theatre Company, it self-identifies as “as a group of young people emerging into adulthood” who were “surprised to find the[Love’s Labours Lost] story so contemporary and relevant to our own lives” as described by Donnelly in her program notes. The company began artistic life in the summer of 2013 with a goal of “reinvigorating classic pieces.”

The 4615 Theatre Company is also nomadic. It has produced shows in various locations over its existence. The venue for Love’s Labors Lost is the theatre-ready auditorium in the St. Stephen Reincarnation Church located in DC’s lively Columbia Heights neighborhood.

So, let’s set the scene for The Bard’s Love’s Labours Lost first published in 1598. The Bard’s characters seem to grapple and stumble into wisdom from a male point of view. The 4615 theatre troupe takes a different tack.

As written, the proceedings takes place in Navarre located geographically in the northern area of Spain on its border with France. Ferdinand, King of Navarre (with a steady play by Charles Cook) and his three of his youthful noble companions, depicted by the verve of Nick Byron, Drew Blowers, and Jason Martin are out and about. The King asks that his three companions swear an oath to live a life of scholarship for three years. That translates into avoiding “contact” with women.

The King’s fancy for celibate living is upended with the arrival of the Princess of France (a sharp Alexandra Nicopoulos) accompanied by three young women from her court (Caroline McQuaig, Sophie DeLeo, and Caroline Maloney each of who provides their own flair, vitality and often nuanced work).

From that starting point, Shakespeare provides plenty of delightful language, witty word-play and comedy. The 4615 production merrily (though sometimes with words disappearing into the auditorium rafters) touches upon human desire.

As Love’s Labours Lost travels in course, there are key appearances from a traveling man-about-town, named Don Adriano de Armado (Jordan Friend who sinks his teeth into the role as a big, robust character) who not strums a guitar and sings but pushes the proceedings along with unsettling ease-dropping and the force of his personality. And there is an overbearing country-bumpkin type character named Costard (Will Anderson who channels Gilbert Gottfried).

Then add a masque ball with some “visitors” from “Moscow” that in the hands of the 4615 troupe takes on the inspired air of those hatted bottle dancers from Fiddler on the Roof along with two utterly soft-spoken tongue-tied geezers (John Burghardt and Andy Penn) who somehow represent maturity and knowledge.

The 16-person cast also includes what usually are male characters played by female actors: Bess Epstein’s portrayal of Dull, Morgan Sendek as Moth, and Susannah Clark as Boyet). Jamie O’Brien plays Jaquenetta, Sophie DeLeo portrays Katharine, and Caroline Maloney is Maria.

Well, OK, so what is the big deal about this updated production of Love’s Labours Lost?

What Director Donnelly and the hard-working 4615 Theatre cast have done it to unmoor Love’s Labours Lost from its male-heavy focus and generally being frozen in the past. Shakespeare remains, but the play has been transformed and rebalanced.

No longer are the women characters “eye-candy,” or “pop-tarts” or other jarring terms. The women characters are far from submissive or subservient. Now the women are teasers, who taunt the males. They project intellectual and sensual awareness. Even in competition with one another, they are easy-going and likable. Mere objects? Not a chance. They don’t’ make fools of themselves. They are the truly powerful beings in this production of Love’s Labours Lost. The female characters expose the truths of The Bard’s play.

As for the men; well they are like teen boys. They are loud, boisterous, generally taking up physical space. But like many a teen male, they are unschooled about the opposite sex. They constantly puff themselves up, throwing themselves about the stage and stage floor. They are all straight-forward and just full of testosterone.

The production has a charm to it that captures the audience attention with its overall outlook much like a contemporary indie Ron-Com film or the unrehearsed, resourceful quality of a Mumblecore film.

The technical design team clearly had a small budget to work with, but they did wonders. The minimal set places the audiences in two long rows on either side of the main auditorium floor space. All the action takes place in the alley between the 40 seats for the audience. The actors often dart about from end to end of the alley, using two small wooden step stools on occasion. The action including some slow motion movement was choreographed by Paige Washington. The production is in modern dress rather developed by Claire Brown and Paul Alan Hogan. A simple lighting design is by E-Hui Woo and Assistant Eamon Abramson.

The production captures the audience attention with its overall outlook much like a contemporary indie Ron-Com film or the unrehearsed, resourceful quality of a Mumblecore film. The production may be very appealing to new theater-goers who may well live on a tight budget. Tickets are $18 for live entertainment about “love, loyalty, and growing up,” all while gaining wisdom, as Director Donnelly wrote in her program notes. Inexpensive price for all that since Love’s Labours Lost pretty much delivers.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

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Love’s Labours Lost in repertory with Women Beware Women through August 6, 2016 at St. Stephen & the Incarnation – 1525 Newton Street NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

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