Review: ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost’ at Folger Theatre

Ready for teasing mockery and romantic conflict that crosses economic classes and genders with an added dash of some re-imagined blurred lines? Then step up to the wit and words of William Shakespeare’s comedy of manners, Love’s Labor’s Lost, in a spirited, classy production at Folger Theatre.

Yesenia Iglesias, Joshua David Robinson, Chani Werele, and Kelsey Rainwater in ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Vivienne Benesch in her Folger directing debut finds her own way to make The Bard’s venerable script come alive for a juicy evening about finding true love, with mutual consent mind you, even when it may have been “falsely attempted” at first. The interplay she unearths are calculating ones, not overbearing “in-your-face” pointed fingers.

Benesch also lets the audience ponder their own responses to questions The Bard raised surrounding “who is the hunter and who is the deer?” and who is “wooing” who? (I wonder to myself if there will be a gender or generational divide in responses?)

Starting with a smart-set 1930s outlook, Benesch has cast an ensemble of performers (many are Washington area regulars) who not only exude a playful attitude but have the mature chops to give depth to The Bard’s deeper moments. There is a balance to the actors’ moments of delicious light and admirable dark.

Added to that, Benesch has a creative team of Love’s Labor’s Lost designers who fabricated a lush eye-candy, “no-detail-is-too-small-to-overlook,” gilding to the small Folger stage with set design by Lee Savage and lighting by Colin K. Bills. It is a two-story polished delight that adds visual layers to the production’s overall appeal especially a key dynamic about power exchanges and connectedness related to who is the top and who is the bottom as scenes float into view. These visual details are accentuated by Tracy Christensen’s neat outfits that soundlessly emphasize not only the characters’ changing agency but the manner in which each character announces, presents, and signifies their fluid selves.

For the uninitiated, Love’s Labor’s Lost centers on the young sporting King of Navarre (Joshua David Robinson) and his three “full-of-themselves” compatriots: a skeptical Berowne (Zachary Fine who excels at the witty word play), and “man-boys” Longaville (Matt Dallal) and Dumaine (Jack Schmitt). They are all set to live a bookish life for three years. No women allowed, thank you very much. “Our court shall be a little Academe” is their mantra.

Tonya Beckman and Edmund Lewis in ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Ha. All too quickly, the four male fledglings fall in love. How is this possible? Enter the virtuous, wary Princess of France (a solid Amelia Pedlow) who arrives on a state visit with her three cautious-with-reason female companions. They are Rosaline (a commanding Kelsey Rainwater) along with the watchful Maria (Yesenia Iglesias) and Katharine (Chani Wereley). They are accompanied by attentive chaperone Boyet (a self-assured, cagey Tonya Beckman) who ultimately provides match-making guidance.

As often with Shakespeare, there is a parallel grouping to the higher born. These characters include Don Armado (Eric Hissom in a sinfully rich comic portrayal), as a Spanish officer who falls head-over-heels for a local servant, Jacquenetta (also played by Tonya Beckman in full grinning joy the moment she steps into view). Accompanying Armado is a young aide named Mote (a self-aware Megan Graves as she comments on her appearance). Add in Costard (a whimsical comic Edmund Lewis) as an unschooled local who can’t be trusted to correctly deliver important letters. And then there is total hoot of a pairing, a librarian named Nathaniel (Susan Rome who is the tops at projecting newly unspooled feelings for another human being with the toss of her eyes and a shoulder slant) and her academically-inclined, pompous Holofernes (a shining Louis Butelli using his undiluted, gravelly voice with great appeal).

How the couplings might finally happen includes a raucous pageant, disguises as traps, a hunting party in which the likes of “dear” and “deer” can have many meanings, along with the silliness of a boys’ pajama-wearing sleepover, with a deeply serious nature as the young men learn that losing their abstinence oaths is needed to find themselves. After all, authentic love “lives not alone immured in the brain.” Then again The Bard and Benesch leave the audience to wonder if the couplings will truly happen. “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way.”

The Bard and the audience are both well-served in Folger’s Love’s Labor’s Lost. The fresh eyes and creative mind of director Benesch and her pearl of an ensemble find new bliss to an old favorite. For those who like to see the old ways upended with an assured, fluid, contemporary touch, Love’s Labor’s Lost is a gem to take in.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Love’s Labor’s Lost plays through June 9, 2019, at The Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 544-7077 or go online