Even though nobody is keeping score, it is all about winning and losing.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost,” the second of two Shakespearean works being presented by the Stolen Shakespeare Guild under the banner of Stolen Shakespeare Festival: Love’s Labour’s Won!, opened Friday at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. It is being presented with “Much Ado About Nothing” during the festival’s final two weekends.
Oddly enough, this wacky romantic comedy believed to be a relatively early work by the Bard is set in motion by some international diplomacy. The central male characters, King Ferdinand (Andrew Manning), Lord Berowne (Chris Rothbauer), Lord Dumaine (Brad Stephens) and Lord Longville (Robert Twaddell), open the proceedings by gathering to sign a pact that requires them to eschew chasing women while devoting themselves to three years of study and scheduled fasting in their homeland of Navarre.
That absurd agreement is broken almost before the ink is dry on the signatures, due to the arrival of a quartet of fetching French girls: the Princess of France (Lauren Morgan) and her ladies in waiting, Rosaline (Shannon Garcia), Katharine (Lindsay Hayward) and Maria (Karen Matheny). They are there to discuss some geopolitics with King Ferdinand (Spain and France were still taking shape in the indefinite time setting of this play), but diplomacy gives way to flirting faster than you can say “what light through yonder window breaks.”
Forgetting their freshly made vows, the men immediately set their sights on conquests that have nothing to do with land and borders. The lords, however, prove to be hopelessly inept at waging campaigns of love. If these clowns governed like they wooed, it is easy to understand why Navarre no longer exists.
The ladies find their bumbling efforts, which include misdelivered billets-doux and ridiculous disguises, to be infinitely amusing, and miss no opportunity to make fools of the boys — which is a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel gift that no one could pass up.
They also have no trouble finding help in making sport of their suitors. A Spanish knight, Don Adriano De Armado (Tyler Shults); his page, Moth (Samantha Snow); a “rustic,” Costard (Richard Stubblefield); and a dairymaid, Jaquenetta (Stefanie Glenn), all get tangled up in the shenanigans in hilarious ways.
Few would call this comedy Shakespeare’s greatest work, but it certainly ranks among his silliest. Directors and company founders Jason and Lauren Morgan take that ball and run with it in this production, which serves up heaping helpings of visual and physical comedy to complement the Bard’s often opaque punning and wordplay. There are moments in this show when you feel like you are watching the end of an episode of “The Benny Hill Show.”
There are also some good performances. Standing head and shoulders above most of his cast mates is Michael Johnson, in the unfortunately minor role of the pompous schoolmaster, Holofernes. It is great to see Johnson, who is known for his work in Dallas, in his second consecutive set of appearances with this company. He is the sort of player who can raise the bar for everyone, and it is hoped that the younger members of this ensemble are watching him closely.
Rothbauer has the best role among the lords, and he makes the most of it. He is a strong actor who seems to grow exponentially with each performance. And Garcia is a joy to watch playing opposite him. Snow, in the “pants role” of Moth, is lithe and delightful in her comic turn.
Morgan and Manning also adroitly carry their loads as the ranking couple in the show. Morgan especially deserves kudos for this production, in which she acts, co-directs and provides the costume designs, which are fabulous (with Garcia’s costume taking a first among equals in that category).
There are a couple of parts that are slightly problematic. Stubblefield is a fine player and it is commendable that he has such a complete and consistent plan for his approach to Costard. But all the movements and affectations he has so carefully created for his character are taken just a bit too far. He might be even more effective if he turned things down just a notch. And Shults scores a few points with his dizzy Spaniard, but the overall characterization could use some polish.
Also of note is a fine set designed by Jason Morgan. Its sprawling layout allows the Morgans to be very spacious in their directing, giving the show’s outrageous comic elements room to breathe.
But the best thing about this production is that, like almost all of Stolen Shakespeare’s presentations of its namesake’s works, it is presented without the slightest hint of pretense or self-importance. Everything in the dimwitted, linguistically challenging world of this play is treated as if it is completely normal.
And that is the typical result of the labors of love this company puts into its better efforts.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
- Through March 4
- Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center
- 866-811-4111; www.stolenshakespeareguild.org
- Note: No performances Saturday due to a special event at the venue.