Let us welcome one of the coolest exhibitions to ever come to Detroit – First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare. Granted, when we say “coolest,” we acknowledge that this is the pronouncement of an avowed theatre nerd. Still, this is notable – Wayne State University, in collaboration with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Public Library, will be hosting events that celebrate a visit by one of the most treasured books on the planet, an original Shakespeare First Folio. The book is the property of the Folger Shakespeare Library and it is something of a holy relic for Shakespeare fans, who are welcome to participate in events hosted in Detroit from February 11 to April 1, 2016.
The first of these events is a delightful production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the Hilberry Theatre on the campus of WSU. Set in post-WWII Europe, it features swinging Big Band music, gorgeous costumes, a terrific cast and, of course, the chance to experience one of Shakespeare’s early and infrequently performed works.
The story is that of four earnest young men – the King of Navarre and three friends of noble birth – who take a serious vow of self-improvement. They plan to devote themselves to a rigorous schedule of study for three years, eschewing sleep, food and the company of women. These high-minded youths are quickly betrayed by nature and the arrival of the beautiful Princess of France and three charming Ladies in Waiting.
Although some things have changed since Shakespeare penned “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” including obscure word usage, the important items remain universal and timeless. Chief among these is the fact that young men will be attracted to beautiful women, even against their better judgement, and will perform any number of foolish stunts to woo them.
The young people are led in grace and charm by the royal couple – Ernest Bentley (King of Navarre) and Breayre Tender (Princess of France). But in truth, it is the wittier, more daring couple who persuade their fellows to engage in fun and foolery – James Kern (Berowne) and Devri Chism (Rosaline). They spar in a way that foreshadows another popular Shakespearian couple – Benedick and Beatrice of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Santino Craven (Dumaine) is smitten with Mary Sansone (Maria), and Brandon A. Wright (Longaville) only has eyes for Wesley Cady (Katherine).
Much of the humor of this play relies on clever word-play and the awkward situation in which the forsworn young men quickly find themselves. Boyet, the lord who escorts the Princess and her ladies, is played by Michael Manocchio as a sort of Noel Coward character with a droll epigram for every situation. And Costard, performed by Nick Stockwell, is the glib-tongued commoner who manages to misdirect all the beaus’ love letters and betray every confidence.
That said, there are many moments of pure physical belly laughs, evoked by the flamboyant, braggadocio Basque – Armado (Michael Phillip Thomas) – and his able page, Moth (Logan Hart). Armado is in love with the wench Jaquenetta, played by Antonia LaChé, who croons us a lovely tune –styled per the swing-era love songs – to end the play.
The cast is rounded out by Kyle Mitchell Johnson as the pompous academic Holofernes, Cody Robison as the erstwhile parson Nathaniel, and Allen Wiseman as Dull, a Gilbert & Sullivanesque constable who also doubles as Marcade, the French messenger who brings all merriment to a screaming halt in the final scene.
The play is directed by Michael J. Barnes, artistic director of the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance. Rather than dwell on Shakespeare’s somewhat ambiguous ending for this comedy, Barnes’ post-WWII setting lets us simply enjoy the optimistic outlook of young people who are deeply in love. “This is a play where the need for fame of knowledge is overcome by the need for the true, human contact that comes with falling in love,” Barnes says. “True knowledge is from being with others—opening one’s heart to them. In the end, the need to love can overcome a separation of distance if the desire is great enough.”
The production and design team supporting Barnes in this brightly imagined “Love’s Labour’s Lost” include: Lyndee Hallahan (Stage Manager), Ryan P. Jones (Assistant Stage Manager), Neal Warner (Music Director), Stephanie Baugher (Scenic Designer), Sammi Geppert (Costume Designer), Mario Raymond (Lighting Designer), Amos Woodard (Sound Designer), Brian Dambacher (Technical Director), Tonae Mitsuhashi (Properties Master), Thomas Libertiny (Master Electrician), and Stephanie Slusser (Dramaturg).
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” opened last week and runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in repertory with “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris. Check the calendar for exact performance dates; the show closes March 12, 2016. All performances take place in the Hilberry Theatre, on the campus of Wayne State University, at 4743 Cass Ave. in Detroit.