Reportedly, the first performance of "Love's Labor's Lost" was done during the Christmas season in 1597 for Queen Elizabeth I at court. The enduring power of Shakespeare's sophisticated wordplay is evident, since, over 400 years later, students in the Fine Arts program at the University of Minnesota Duluth opened their own iteration of the comedy Thursday night at the Marshall Performing Arts Center.
Director Kate Ufema ascended the stage to thank the surprisingly well-attended performance for braving the elements and the drifts of snow to see the play. As the house lights dimmed and the action began, the beauty and thought put in to the set design by veteran Curt Phillips came fully into effect.
The story line is as classic as it is anachronistic in culturally problematic ways. The King of Navarre (Ole Dack) and his lords Longaville (Jake Nelson), Dumain (Samuel Keran) and Berowne (Addison Sim) have pledged to devote themselves to intense study and fasting for three years. This pledge includes an edict that no woman must come within a mile of court - ostensibly because men are simply unable to control themselves.
There is a lot of action packed into 94 minutes. And the play is especially challenging in its cadence and sophistication. Among the king's companions, Nelson and Keran handle their lines adroitly, but it is Dack and Sim who carry the performances of Shakespeare's voluminous vocabulary. Sim, in particular, is compelling on stage, providing emotional fluency with his lines and a steady, sure delivery. His facility with Shakespeare is again as apparent as it was the last time I saw him in performance for "Much Ado About Nothing."
Bounding onto stage, Thomas Henry as the naughty Costard holds his own with wry comic chops, busted for a tryst with a town "wench," Jaquenetta, played mildly by Cally Stanich. But, his accuser, Armado, a Spanish visitor to court, is brilliantly played by Reese Britts with masterful elocution, comedic timing and movement on stage. His moments on stage leave one noticing his absences from the action - not a bad thing for an actor.
The plot is predictable, but not thin. The lords and the king fall for the Princess (Taylor Sexton) and her ladies, Maria (Laura Carlson), Katharine (Miranda Neuhaus) and Rosaline (Leah Walk), visiting Navarre on official business but staying in tents away from the palace due to the edict. Letters are shuffled to them and plots devised to woo them. Sexton had considerable presence on stage but seemed overburdened at times with her lines. In her defense, the dialogue is cumbersome. What would have flowed on the tongues of 16th century Londoners is wholly unfamiliar today. As a group, the women on stage have their own juicy witticisms getting the better of the men - as all women do.
Choreography by Rebecca Catz Harwood gives us the treat of seeing the king and lords dancing capably as disguised Muscovites with gorgeous costuming by Kelsey Bias. These details add flair, texture and pure comedy.
Notable is Simon Van Vactor-Lee as solicitor to the Princess and her ladies as Boyet. His subtle timing and ease with the complexities of the script add just the right measure of comedy that lifts the action when needed.
The company put on an exuberant and capable performance making it obvious that taking on the challenge of Love's Labor's Lost is a feather in a student's cap. The lauded Bard's appeal endures, and the UMD theater program did it justice in a show that is worth the perils of plowing through the snow to see on a winter's night.
Dennis Kempton is a freelance arts and culture writer in Duluth.
If you go
What: "Love's Labor's Lost" by William Shakespeare
Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center, UMD, 1215 Ordean Ct.
When: Feb. 7-9, 13-16 at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 10 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $21 for adults, $16 for seniors, veterans, UMD faculty/staff, $10 for students, and $8 for UMD students. www.tickets.umn.edu.