Left to right, Jay Hindle, Josh Epstein and Daniel Doheny in Bard on the Beach’s Love’s Labor’s Lost. (photo by David Blue)
How do you get more people interested in Shakespeare? Give ’em what they want – music, song, dance, comedy and words that are easy on the ears. Bard on the Beach has incorporated all these elements into its production of Love’s Labor’s Lost, set in a speakeasy in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties.
Think Prohibition, gangsters, molls, spats, fedoras, shoulder holsters, Cole Porter, flappers, the Charleston and vaudeville, all in glorious Technicolor, and you get an inkling of what is to come. Set on the intimate Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Studio, the fun begins the minute you walk through the tent flaps, as cast members accompany you to your seats with song and dance (and martinis – theirs, not yours). It continues with introductory remarks by a ventriloquist dummy that looks (and sounds) a lot like artistic director Christopher Gaze.
Ferdinand, aka “the king” of the gangsters (Jay Hindle), decides to shut down his nightclub, Navarre, devote three years of his life strictly to academic study and abstain from all vices including women (ouch!). He talks his friends Berowne (Jewish community member Josh Epstein) and Dumain (Daniel Doheny) into joining him in this escapade and the three sign a pact. However, just as they embark on their chaste journey, they meet blond bombshell Princess (Lindsey Angell) and her two friends, Rosaline (Luisa Jojic) and Katherine (Sereana Malani), each of whom catches the fancy of one of the potential abstainers.
To woo their respective ladies, the smitten men write secret letters and have a messenger, the resident clown Costard (Andrew Cownden), deliver them to the objects of their affection. Meanwhile, a fourth love story is brewing during all of this action, that of Don Amato (Andrew McNee), Ferdinand’s Italian house guest, who has fallen for Jaquenetta (Dawn Petten), one of the Navarre flappers – who has also written a letter to be delivered by Costard. A mix-up occurs (naturally) and what happens next is an hilarious musical romp through courtship interruptus with the men disguised and the women masked.
Princess’ chaperone, Boyet (Anna Galvin), gets into the game as the go between the men holed up in Navarre and the women forced to camp outside the building. Witty repartee abounds as the battle of the sexes heats up, and we all know who eventually wins that battle.
As musical director, Ben Elliott (with Jewish community member Anton Lipovetsky as his assistant) has done a great job of bringing iconic hits from the ’20s into this show. The jazz band (piano, bass, trumpet and drums) is the perfect background for the actors who, during an intense soliloquy, suddenly break into songs like, “It Had to Be You,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Second Hand Rose” and “Blue Skies.”
Epstein – who is the face of this production with Jojic on the season poster – wows with his voice in every number he sings and is certainly one of the standouts along with McNee, who sports a soprano-like gangsta accent and puts on a daring one- “woman” show (accompanied by his sidekick, Moth, played by Lili Beaudoin), and Petten, with her nasal voice and horizontal dance rendition (she rolls down the stairs and right back up).
This is the same cast that performs A Comedy of Errors on the BMO Mainstage (reviewed in the July 3 Independent) and it is a credit to their collective comedic acting talents that they can pull off both shows with success.
The set and lighting provide the feel of an underground Chicago speakeasy. The costumes by Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup are simply divine, sparkly, fringed sheath dresses, rolled-up silk stockings, beautiful headdresses and glamorous fur stoles for the women; snappy suits, hats and Oxfords for the men. Valerie Easton’s peppy choreography is spot on.
Some will say that this production goes too far, and is not really Shakespeare – after all, Shakespeare: The Musical, who would have thought it possible? As with Bard on the Beach’s Comedy this year, purists are going to lament the loss of classical productions but, on Love’s opening night, audience members were humming along with the songs, tapping their feet to the catchy tunes and they jumped up in unison for a standing ovation before the last note was sung in the closing song, “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
You have to give Gaze credit for taking a chance on director Daryl Cloran’s vision, which includes cutting half of the original text and omitting some characters. As he writes in the director’s notes, “Ultimately, that’s what’s so exciting to me about adapting a script – the process of exploring, shedding and inventing to get to the heart of the story and find a way of telling it so that it resonates with a contemporary audience.” It is a safe bet that even old Will himself would be doing the Charleston Stratford-on-Avon way if he saw this version of his play. If you are a lover of jazz and showmanship, this production is a must-see. While it runs until Sept. 20, word on the street is that shows are selling out quickly so don’t wait too long to book your tickets (bardonthebeach.org or 604-739-0559).
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.