Is “Love’s Labour’s Lost” the most Monty Pythonesque of Shakespeare’s plays? It certainly seemed that way on Wednesday, when the rarely performed comedy opened at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s outdoor stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morris Township. It’s full of frenetic wordplay and silly behavior, but requires its actors to deliver their lines with great comic precision, staying calm amid the chaos. The cast assembled by director Brian B. Crowe is up to the task, and the production is just perfect for the kind of dry, not-too-hot summer night we happened to have on Wednesday. It’s especially good for young people being exposed to Shakespeare for the first time, since it has such ample clowning, the plot is simple, and the twists — including misunderstandings resulting from misdelivered letters — are easy to follow.
The play starts with the King of Navarre (Jonathan Raviv) and his lords Berowne (Ben Jacoby), Dumaine (Austin Ku) and Longaville (Aaron McDaniel) making a pact to refrain from the company of women and fast once a week — for three years! — in order to devote themselves to their studies, and become better men. When they actually sit down with their books, though, they fuss and fidget so much it seems like they’d rather be doing just about anything else. You know this pact isn’t going to end well.
Distraction comes quickly in the form of the Princess of France (Jesmille Darbouze) and her three ladies in waiting: Rosaline (Susan Maris), Katherine (Kristen Kittel) and Maria (Carrie Walsh). It hadn’t occurred to the King that as the head of state, he couldn’t avoid visiting female dignitaries completely. And so he and his lords meet the Princess and her ladies, using books to shield their eyes, and therefore stay true to their vows.
But, of course, the King falls in love with the Princess, and each of the lords with one of the ladies, with much of the attention focused on Berowne (the cleverest and most outspoken of the men, as well as the one who resists the pact the most) and Rosaline (the wittiest and most forward of the women, and therefore the only one of them who can be a true sparring partner for Berowne).
Each man breaks his vows, and they all figure out what the others are doing while trying to keep their own transgressions a secret. Ultimately, they stop fighting their true natures, and drop the pact. (No one seems too upset about that.)
The play is only half over at this point, though. Two uproarious diversions then dominate, the rest of the way. One is a segment where the men ridiculously disguise themselves as Russians, and the women, who are always one or more steps ahead of them, have some fun at their expenese. The other is a play-within-a-play, with some of the secondary characters mounting a bizarre little production of their own.
The ending is happy, of course, though not totally happy. One character receives some bad news that seems a bit out of place in a comedy, but helps ground this giddy confection in reality.
Of the supporting actors, the standout is Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey veteran Jeffrey M. Bender, who plays the foppish Don Armado, a visiting Spanish nobleman who is in love with a dairy maid, Jacquenetta (Rebecca Gomberg), and whose high opinion of himself does not seem to be undercut by his tendency to screw everything up, always. John Cleese could not have done it better.
Don Armado also mangles the English language, and the play’s high point, in many ways, is not one of the love scenes between the four likable couples, but a segment in which he and the pedantic schoolteacher Holofernes (Bruce Cromer) exchange malapropisms fast and furiously.
“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps,” deadpans Don Armado’s page Moth (Felix Mayes), in an aside.
The play runs through July 26. For information, visit shakespearenj.org.