'Love's Labor's Lost': This Way Modness Lies

Far out: Michael Milligan, Erik Steele, Amir Arison and Aubrey Deeker in Michael Kahn's staging of the play for Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Far out: Michael Milligan, Erik Steele, Amir Arison and Aubrey Deeker in Michael Kahn's staging of the play for Shakespeare Theatre Company. (By Carol Rosegg -- Shakespeare Theatre Company)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Thank goodness it's nothing like a hard day's night over on Seventh Street. Michael Kahn's Beatles- and Rolling Stones-inspired rethink of "Love's Labor's Lost" proves to be a frisky mingling of Elizabethan wit and Nehru-jacketed satire.

Kahn has transferred this Shakespeare high comedy, with its multiple pairs of standoffish lovers and sly juxtapositions of foolishness and wisdom, to an ashram in India, where the King of Navarre (Amir Arison) is now a mystic. Remember the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? The young lords are world-famous rock-and-rollers, and their love objects are dishy, miniskirted coquettes out of a David Bailey fashion shoot, in ironed hairdos and smudgy eye makeup.

The girls in this Shakespeare Theatre Company production also put on go-go boots, the patent-leather variety that Nancy Sinatra told us were made for walkin'. How apropos, because these women only look like groupie-refugees from an episode of "Hullabaloo." They do walk all over the boys, as the play makes its way through the flirtatious thicket of romance.

Time-and-space adjustments to Shakespeare should be approached with a healthy dollop of skepticism, not as much because of potential damage to the text as the omnipresent danger of old-hat-ness: Haven't we all sort of been here before? Kahn, however, is not a facile proponent of high-concept Shakespeare, and in this instance the conceit helps to anchor a work whose comedic charms can be elusive.

Setting the play at one of the epicenters of 1960s counterculture frees up its lyrical and festive spirit, shores up the characters' narrative connections and gives an apt context for the fluid interplay of outrageous personages at all levels of the social strata.

Shakespeare assists with the lyrics for songs that composer Adam Wernick turns into rock ballads for the lovesick members of the band -- pleasingly played by Hank Stratton, Erik Steele and Aubrey Deeker -- who imbue the numbers with a self-mocking earnestness. The songs supply the director, too, with something from which the production benefits greatly: a socko Act 1 finale.

In hip-huggers and macrame belts, the long-haired rockers -- Stratton's Berowne, Steele's Longaville and Deeker's Dumaine -- grab electric guitars and drumsticks to sing about their puppy-dog crushes. Although they begin the play as recruits to Navarre's brand of asceticism, swearing off women in favor of study, all of them, Navarre included, succumb to attraction. By play's end, they're not merely besotted, though. They've all come to a more mature understanding of love, one worthy of the type of strong commitment they initially sought just as adamantly to avoid.

The arc of the story gives the lie to the title. The labors of love are thrown here for anything but a loss.

"Love's Labor's Lost" is Shakespeare Theatre Company's entry in the year-long marathon in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where the Royal Shakespeare Company is inviting troupes from around the world to assist in presenting the entire canon. The production, the troupe's first visit to England, reopens there in August. How it will be received in the cradle of Bard-dom, who can say? But with its allusions to British contributions to pop music and fashion -- not to mention theater -- it properly should be received as an expression of affection.

The Age of Aquarius was prime time for loud statements, and thus a dream to evoke theatrically. Sitar music, tie-dyed shirts and peace symbols figure in the Kahn scheme. And of course, what would any representation of the decade be without an honest-to-goodness stoner? The generation that turned on, tuned in and dropped out is embodied here brilliantly by Michael Milligan, as a grungy hippie version of Costard, "Love's Labor's" rude clown.

It's an inspired idea and a fab performance. Who but a bedraggled space cadet is better suited to the farcical task of delivering love letters to the wrong people? The director allows Milligan the opportunities for delectable ad-libbing. To a degree that rarely happens in Shakespeare, you're actually made to laugh when the clown shows up. And it's established as wonderfully in character for someone who was invented in the 16th century to be seated on a 21st-century stage rolling a joint.

The exhibitionism that Kahn draws out in "Love's Labor's Lost" extends to the verbal variety. Words are as paisley prints in this world: garishly out of place when inexpertly flashed. The comic foils in the play -- the grandiose fop Don Adriano de Armado (a funny Geraint Wyn Davies) and the clueless pedant Holofernes (a swell Ted van Griethuysen) -- pepper their speeches with magnificent malapropisms and mangled displays of erudition. Costard claims not to understand "remuneration," but at least he's not a pretentious nit on the order of Holofernes, who drops words like "thrasonical" and "peregrinate."

The lengths to which Shakespeare goes with wordplay do at times try the patience -- audiences in his time probably were able to luxuriate more completely in his virtuosity. We are more accustomed now to language subordinate to action, and so the banter in this early work stalls things. Perhaps this is why spectacle becomes an even more crucial element here. The arrival on Vespas of the Princess of France (Claire Lautier) and her retinue, the seductive dance by the local beauty Jaquenetta (Jolly Abraham), the invasion by alien "Muscovites" -- all are presented in bursts of color and delight.

Costume designer Catherine Zuber dresses everyone wittily, Wyn Davies in particular: He's made up to look like Salvador Dali in zebra stripes. Zuber -- a Tony winner on Sunday night for the Lincoln Center Theater revival of "Awake and Sing!" -- has a grand time, too, with the actresses (Colleen Delany, Angela Pierce, Sabrina LeBeauf and Lautier) playing the emissaries from the French court. She drapes them in clothes that suggest a Yardley girl in one scene and Barbarella the next.

They look so sexy that you do find yourself wishing for a little more salivating on the part of the smitten guys, who remain at times too reserved. (Maybe it's a rock-star thing.) The sparks in particular between Stratton and LeBeauf feel less than incendiary. The appealing Arison, in pursuit of the lovely Lautier, takes fullest advantage of the opportunity to exude a comically musky magnitude of need.

Nevertheless, Kahn's production dexterously brings to the fore the play's perspective on the piquant bylaws of love, their universality confirmed in madras and bell-bottoms. The moon here is in the seventh house, and Jupiter contentedly aligned with Mars.

Love's Labor's Lost, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set, Ralph Funicello; lighting, Mark Doubleday; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Martin Desjardins. With Floyd King, Nick Choksi, Rock Kohli, James Rana, Leo Erickson, David Sabin. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Through July 30 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit .

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