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Amaka Umeh as Rosaline and Tyrone Savage as Berowne with members of the company in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Stratford Festival.Stratford Festival

  • Title: Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Peter Pasyk
  • Actors: Tyrone Savage, Amaka Umeh, Jordin Hall, Celia Aloma, Gordon S. Miller, Steve Ross
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 1

Critic’s pick

The fact that the Stratford Festival’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is getting such a short run in the small Studio Theatre might be because it’s one of Shakespeare’s early, lesser-known works.

No one would argue that the play belongs in the same company as comic classics like Much Ado About Nothing (currently on at the Festival Theatre), Twelfth Night or As You Like It.

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From the left: Qianna MacGilchrist as Maria, Celia Aloma as Princess of France, Elizabeth Adams as Katharine and Amaka Umeh as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost.Stratford Festival

And yet, as of this writing, you can’t get a ticket to the show’s month-long run. No wonder. The intimate venue and director Peter Pasyk’s fast-paced, intermissionless production ensure audiences get to savour each moment as if they’re watching some guilty pleasure dating reality show.

Which, in a way, they are. Think Too Hot to Handle meets Shakespeare in Love.

Headed by their pal Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Jordin Hall), three scholarly bros – Berowne (Tyrone Savage), Dumaine (Chanakya Mukherjee) and Longaville (Chris Mejaki) – agree to swear off the company of women for three years so they can study.

But when the Princess of France (Celia Aloma), accompanied by her three friends Rosaline (Amaka Umeh), Maria (understudy Heather Kosik at the performance I saw, replacing Qianna MacGilchrist) and Katharine (Elizabeth Adams) appear on a diplomatic mission, their plans are foiled. Before long, the men are breaking out of their residence, writing poetic letters to the objects of their affection and making glorious fools of themselves.

Add in some tropes such as disguises and letters delivered to the wrong people, and you’ve got the makings of a delightful, youthful romantic comedy.

Yes, youthful. Scholars estimate that the Bard was probably in his late 20s when he wrote the play, and in Love’s Labour’s Lost you see a gifted writer still discovering his voice and trying out ideas. There’s a play-within-a-play scene near the end that feels like a warm-up to the brilliant one he penned a few years later in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And he’s particularly in love with wordplay, much of which Pasyk has excised from this streamlined version of the script because it’s dated and dramatically unnecessary. (I’m sad a clever early exchange involving the words “manor” and “manner” is absent.)

What Pasyk has kept in, however, works very well. It’s been said that Love’s Labour’s Lost works better in production than it does on the page, and that definitely feels true here.

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Steve Ross as Boyet, centre, with (from the left) MacGilchrist, Aloma, and Umeh in Love’s Labour’s Lost.Stratford Festival

From the opening prelude, in which a clownish, libidinous character named Costard (Wahsontí:io Kirby, quite the discovery) uses a sexually suggestive leaf blower to pursue a young maid named Jaquenetta (Hannah Wigglesworth) to the scene in which the four women check their cellphones to Google information about their four male counterparts, this is theatre that communicates clearly and effectively.

Thanks to Sim Suzer’s sexy and colourful costumes for the four young men and women, we get a good sense of who these characters are; if they weren’t in a play, they’d be checking each other out at some exclusive club on Toronto’s King West. And her costumes for the other characters are equally effective. The pedantic school teacher Holofernes (Michael Spencer-Davis), for instance, is outfitted like a stuffy Oxford don. And the play’s most outrageous character, a visiting Spaniard named Don Armado (Gordon S. Miller), wears what appears to be designer pyjamas.

Pasyk isn’t above cheap visual gags like that leaf blower in the first scene and a snake near the end manipulated by a charming character named Moth (Christo Graham). In one scene, Don Armado, complete with jokey mustache, lisps his s’s, as per the Spanish cliché, and the character he’s talking to wipes away invisible spittle.

But there are deeper currents in the play involving narcissism, romantic fickleness and sacrifices for love. And these come out courtesy of the impassioned, grounded performances by Savage and Umeh.

The final scene, the longest single scene in all of Shakespeare, ends on an unpredictable, bittersweet note that adds complexity to the preceding comedy. Wigglesworth’s coquettish Jaquenetta gets to sing a solo, and soon she’s joined by the ensemble. Thomas Ryder Payne’s music and sound design, enhanced by Arun Srinivasan’s gradually dimming lighting design, suggest that not everything may work out in the characters’ romantic lives.

Youthful work or not, that’s a mature observation. And it makes this lovely, melancholy production even more satisfying.

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