Love's Labor's Regained at the Public 

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Love's Labor's Lost
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Karin Coonrod

"For when would you, my lord, or you, or you," Berowne asks his three comrades, "have found the ground of study's excellence without the beauty of a woman's face?" By this point, roughly halfway into the Public Theater's excellent production of Love's Labor's Lost (through November 6), it's abundantly clear that the four friends' vows to remain secluded from women for three years of arduous study will be broken. Moments after each—King Ferdinand (Hoon Lee), Berowne (Nick Westrate), Longaville (Keith Eric Chappelle) and Dumaine (Jorge Chacon)—signs onto this monastic study group, the princess of France (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and her three female attendants (Rebecca Brooksher, Samira Wiley and Michelle Beck) arrive, a typically transparent bit of Shakespearean matchmaking. Playing against this four-on-four game of courtship are eight clowns, plus a messenger who shuttles between the two groups. All that symmetry may sound rigid but this ensemble, with strong direction from Karin Coonrod (and terrific wardrobes by Oana Botez Ban), effectively liquifies it, playing delightfully with Shakespeare's most notoriously wordy play.

Inspired touches mark every scene, whether in the treatment of the text or winking contemporary allusions like a mace-happy constable or the queen and her attendants spontaneously intoning Beyonce's "Single Ladies." But the actors' facility with the exceptionally verbose and tricky language elevates this production from clever to incredible. Westrate is especially magnetic as the lovelorn lead, delivering some of the Bard's best soliloquies impeccably. The fools have great fun too, and this is one of the rare recent Shakespeare productions in which scenes set aside for comic relief don't seem like stalling between chapters of the main action. Steven Skybell merits special mention for, among many moments of comic brilliance, stunningly pantomiming the queen's killing of a deer with an arrow during a hunt.

This production gets at the text's very hunt-like structure, whereby King Ferdinand and his men go after the princess and her ladies, who evade and delay mercilessly. All your classic Shakespeare devices are here, including absurd disguises, a play within the play, love letters dispatched to the wrong recipients, and tokens of affection traded to trick the givers into a kind of love test. At its best, which we get here, Love's Labor's Lost articulates perhaps more beautifully than any other Shakespeare comedy—or the early going in Romeo and Juliet—the blinding, gut-wrenching and fluttery excitement of attraction, courtship and young love. Clocking in at a swift two hours without intermission, this production wins in a landslide.

(Photo: Richard Termine)

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