LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST by William Shakespeare; directed by Louis W. Scheeder; set design by Hugh Lester; costumes by Bary Allen Odom; lighting by Allen Lee Hughes; choreography by Virginia Freeman; music and songs by William Penn; with Ralph Cosham, Michael Tolaydo, David Cromwell, Leonardo Cimino, Albert Corbin, Michael Gabel, Earle Edgerton, Tobias Haller, Tom Aldridge, Marion Lines, Ellen Newman, Katharine Manning, Lorraine Pollack and Glynis Bell.
At the Folger Theatre through May 24.
Hardly any work of Shakespeare's is more dense with wordplay than "Love's Labour's Lost." Hardly any is more sparse with real matter.
So you don't require any very deep acting skills to perform this play. No method actors need apply. "Love's Labour's Lost" requires actors with presence, spirit, intelligence, grace and pleasing voices. These qualities are in happy abundance on the stage of the Folger Theatre just now and in case their verbal games aren't enough to keep your senses stimulated, the cast has been installed in costumes (by Bary Allen Odom) that surpass even the Folger's usual standard of eye-filling splendor.
The plot of "Love's Labour's Lost" is absurdly simple The King of Navarre and his three loyal lieutenants vow to devote three to their studies, forsaking all earthly pleasures. No woman is to be allowed within a mile's distance during that time. Then along comes a delegation from the King of France -- a princess and three attending ladies (mark that, three ladies and three lieutenants), and each of the chaste students is soon mailing off fervent love letters on the sly.
Of all the suitors, the most passionate turns out to be Lord Berowne, a former scoffer at love who, before he met the Lady Rosaline, arrogantly predicted that he alone would stay true to his vows. Berowne, splendidly portrayed by Michael Tolaydo, can hardly believe his senses when he falls under the sway of Love: "this senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid; regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms, the anointed sovereign of sighs and groans, liege of all loiterers and malcontents, dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces, sole imperator and great general of trotting 'paritors."
Berowne's speeches are a sea of words in which an actor could easily drown, but Tolaydo strokes his way firmly with the current. And besides being a pleasure to listen to, he moves about with bouncy energy and a sure sense of balance, at one point slinking across the rear of the stage like some cartoon villain, at another point leaping up into a tree with an ease that would be the envy of a Lafayette Park squirrel.
Tolaydo's tree-climbing is even more impressive, incidentally, because the tree in question seems far too slender to bear a human's weight. The flora is part of a thoroughly satisfactory set concocted by Hugh Lester from minimal components -- a few steps and columns, a balustrade, several cherubic sculptures and a skyful of shimmering green leaves.
In addition to Tolaydo's verbally and visually agile work as Berowne, the admirable performances include Marion Lines' as the commandingly witty princess, Ralph Cosham's as the moody Kind Ferdinand, Ellen Newman's as Rosaline and Leonardo Cimmino's as the ladies' spunky old retainer.
Then of course, come the clowns, with such names as Moth, Costard and Holofernes, and with their various tenuous connections to the main plot. Several of the lesser of them are rather monotonous fellows here -- one Constable Dull, for example, as enacted by Michael Gabel in a frizzy yellow wig. But a flamboyant Spanish dandy named Don Adriano is acted and costumed to the hilt. As the Don, Albert Corbin -- decked out in a marvelous collage of Renaissance finery, complete with white ruff collar -- displays the rare facility to put feeling and delicacy into a foolish character without compromising his foolishness.
Despite all the good ingredients, this is a production, it must be said, that wears exceeding thin in the last third. "Love's Labour's Lost" may not demand the most profound sort of acting, but the plot's flimsy resolution, where a good deal of the clowning is concentrated, makes extraordinary demands on actors and audience alike. It requires either a virtuoso display of surface skills (even beyond this troupe's accomplishments) or a theatergoer with unusual enthusiasm for minor Shakespearean comedy.