Love’s Labor’s strikes up the band

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new musical version on the outdoor stage delightfully updates "LLL" for a modern age

ASHLAND – One of the great joys of seeing plays in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is seeing the same actors in multiple roles, showcasing the rare abilities of repertory company members.

This is on display nowhere more clearly than the Allen Elizabethan Theatre stage in this summer’s production of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which continues through October 14. Many of the actors who take on major roles here are also in major roles in other plays.

Longaville (Jeremy Gallardo), Dumain (William Thomas Hodgson), Berowne( Stephen Michael Spencer) and Ferdinand (Daniel José Molina) disguise themselves as Muscovites as they set out to woo the Princess of France and her ladies. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

There’s Vilma Silva as Boyet, who is the driver of so much dark action (and comedy) in this season’s sell-out hit, Destiny of Desire.

There’s Tatiana Wechsler, so girly here as Katharine you’ll barely recognize her as Curly from OSF’s groundbreaking Oklahoma!

And Royer Bockus, Curly’s love in Oklahoma!, not only portrays Jaquenetta (and a hunted doe) with an aw-shucks innocence, but she also helps turn this into a full-blown musical, often fronting the seven-piece band that makes this stage home for two hours and 40 minutes.

It seems, in fact, that the stars of most of this season’s other plays turn up in this one. There’s Othello (Chris Butler as Sir Nathaniel, a curate)! And Desdemona (Alejandra Escalante as the Princess of France)! It’s Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson as Dumain)! And Henry V (Daniel José Molina as Ferdinand, King of Navarre)!

And maybe that’s intentional. This is, after all, a play that knows it’s a play. Daniel Ostling’s scenic design helps remind us of that, with scaffolding and buckets of paint scattered about, as if the stage isn’t quite ready. But is it ever! The scaffolding, the spiral staircase, the buckets of paint, even the seemingly discarded decorations, all play a part here — as do all of those company members in what could be seen as their “other” roles.

Ashland’s music-filled “Love’s Labor’s Lost” features numbers performed live by actors and musicians (Ensemble). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

But, if anyone sees them that way going in, they won’t when it’s over. This acting troupe and veteran OSF director Amanda Dehnert bring Love’s Labor’s Lost to life in a whole new way. Stephen Michael Spencer gives Berowne an angst — not to mention rock-star cred, as he also plays guitar and sings ( “I Love You Anyway” is a highlight) — that you likely haven’t seen from the verbose and lovesick smart-aleck.

Cedric Lamar (Ike Skidmore in Oklahoma!, if you’re keeping track) elevates Costard, the clown, with his own musical and acting abilities (he sings “I Love You Anyway” with Spencer, and also freestyles with Shaun Taylor-Corbett who is Moth, a page; and he’s a music captain alongside Bockus). The work Lamar and Taylor-Corbett – with help from Armando Duran, Richard Howard, Robin Goodrin Nordli, and others — do to entertain audiences in the Nine Worthies scene alone is worth the cost of admission, for the physicality (not to mention overhead projecting abilities — don’t ask; just go see it).

But the stars here are Molina and Escalante. If you’ve been watching this duo since they started at OSF six years ago in an 1840s Romeo and Juliet, through last season’s Henry IV plays, and in this year’s Henry V (Molina) and Othello (Escalante), you might wonder why it didn’t dawn on you until now just how deft as Shakespearean actors they have become.

You can give credit to OSF for embracing Latinx versions of Shakespeare’s timeless characters, but that would not give enough credit to these incredible two actors, who might be ushering in a new era of Shakespeare acting.

Sir Adrian O. Dearmaddow (Richard Howard, left), Holofernes (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and Sir Nathaniel (Chris Butler). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

When Molina slows down and comedically recites in iambic pentameter the sonnet his King Ferdinand is writing for Escalante’s Princess of France, it draws attention to how human he usually makes Shakespeare’s words. The way he reads the sonnet — “So SWEET a KISS the GOLD-en sun gives NOT…” — lies in stark contrast to how he usually recites Shakespeare’s verses, as if they are from a contemporary playwright. After he breezes quickly through a particularly complicated bit about the King of France’s payment (or not payment?) of 100,000 crowns, Molina looks at the audience and says, “Got it?” Laughter erupts, because it’s clear that we do not “got it,” but he very much does.

This is a Love’s Labor’s Lost that makes me wish for Shakespeare on Broadway — not because it’s Hamlet with a big name like Jude Law, but to bring Shakespeare to a broader audience. This Shakespeare is so fun, so accessible, with such brilliant songs and music by composers Dehnert and Andre J. Pluess, elaborate fight scenes (involving paint!) by the great fight director U. Jonathan Toppo, and some of Shakespeare’s sharpest wit.

Dehnert, with help from costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, uses color throughout the play by dressing everyone in white and using those buckets of paint to treat each actor as a canvas for self and others. It’s utterly magical. But watch out when the color fades.

Shakespeare purists might complain about this production for its addition of music, or bits of contemporary language thrown in. But this is today’s Shakespeare, and how you make it resonate in a changing world.

However you feel about those changes, what Dehnert gets absolutely right — where many other directors have struggled — is that troublesome ending. She doesn’t try to play it for laughs, or wrap it up neatly. Instead, she punches you right in the gut with the real meaning of it all: theater, life, love. As she writes in the playbill, “It is only at the very end of Love’s Labor’s Lost that we learn the real reason for that third part of the title.”

And she has the right actors in place to drive that gut-punch home. Escalante, without words, illuminated by a bright white light from lighting designer Japhy Weideman, strips herself bare in more ways than one at the end of this spectacular production. Come prepared to laugh, love, and admire, but also be prepared to feel, because this Love’s Labor’s Lost will move you in profound and surprising ways.

Katharine (Tatiana Wechsler), Princess of France (Alejandra Escalante), Rosaline (Jennie Greenberry) and Maria (Niani Feelings). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2018

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