"Love's Labour's Lost" is one of Shakespeare's lightest comedies, and the Bowman Ensemble's outdoor production at McDonogh School is as airy as the setting. But director Matthew Ramsay and costume designer J. Marshall Walker introduce an image near the end that I found rather chilling.
When the Princess of France and her three female attendants learn that King Ferdinand of Navarre and his followers plan to court them in disguise, the women decide to hide their faces as well. The text calls for the ladies to be "masked." In Bowman's 1930s-style production, however, they have just finished playing badminton and are wiping their brows with towels, so instead of masks, they wrap the towels around their heads.
The effect is comic, but it's also eerily reminiscent of Rene Magritte's 1928 painting "The Lovers," in which a kiss is exchanged between a man and a woman whose heads are completely shrouded in fabric. Magritte's image is far more haunting than anything in "Love's Labour's." But the notion that the lovers in the painting don't know each other is also pertinent to the play, in which the King and his men have little self-knowledge and even less knowledge of the opposite sex.
"Love's Labour's" is the 5-year-old Bowman Ensemble's first Shakespearean production, and as this example suggests, director Ramsay and his mostly accomplished cast have taken an insightful approach to this spoof of love and courtship. (The company, however, needs to do a lot more work posting signs directing audiences to its new site, which is tucked away in a grove behind the field house.)
The plot is one of the Bard's least complex. No sooner do the King and his followers take an oath to dedicate themselves to study for three years, renouncing the company of women, than they fall in love with the Princess and her attendants, who arrive unexpectedly on a diplomatic mission. The men then employ what they believe to be witty tactics, but the women outwit them at every turn.
The gentleman who believes himself the wittiest of all is Berowne. In an indication of one of the rewards of Bowman's recent merger with the Goucher College faculty, Michael Simon-Curry, an associate professor of theater, delivers a cunningly sharp performance in this crucial role. Rebecca Free, his colleague at Goucher, is equally impressive as the shrewd Princess, who is as familiar with the workings of the heart as the workings of the mind.
These performers are well-matched by Britta Jepsen and Dan Garrett, who play their respective paramours, Rosaline and the King. And though the portrayals of the common folk are somewhat uneven, Lucia Bowes is a spitfire as flirtatious Jaquenetta, and Richard Rungee is the humorous epitome of pomposity as the pedant, Holofernes.
The 1930s setting lends accessibility to a play whose archaic jokes can be lost on modern audiences. (The updating also accounts for the lovely Gershwin tunes to which the final song is set.) And even the sense of darkness that results from the eerie image described above has some foundation in the text. The title, after all, is "Love's Labour's Lost"; this is the rare comedy that doesn't end positively. The Bowman Ensemble's production, however, is yet another positive sign of the skills of this young company.
"Love's Labour's Lost"
Where: McDonogh School, 8600 McDonogh Road, Owings Mills
When: 8 tonight through Sunday and July 20-23
Call: (410) 337-6512