Love’s Labour’s Lost

By Jocelyn McMahon

CAN WE PUT LOVE IN A BOX? To be set aside for a designated date? Can we control our emotions for the greater good of academia? Love’s Labour’s Lost opened the 2018 season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare and explores the concepts of love and control through humor and word play, and as the gentlemen of Navarre quickly discover, NO, desire cannot be controlled.

King Ferdinand has just proposed a decree in which all men, including himself, are to devote themselves to three years uninterrupted study without any distractions; this includes fasting, minimal sleep, and most importantly NO WOMEN! Lords Longaville, Dumaine, and finally Berowne (not without much protest) sign the decree. Unfortunately, the King must have overlooked his calendar because the Princess of France is on her way to discuss some business, and is accompanied by her three ladies, Rosaline, Katherine and Maria.

One by one these men, bursting with affection, fall like flies, each for a different woman, and experience emotion and creativity unlike any they have felt before. However, they must not let one another know they have spoken to a woman, after all who would want to be first to lose the “bet?”

Not a frequently performed play, Love’s Labour’s Lost is often assumed to be one of Shakespeare’s earlier and less experienced works (though researchers say it was published in 1598 and composed around the same time as Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, while it may lack the acclaim and have a rather simplistic plot-line, it’s exploration of love through language is nothing short of poetic genius. And while the never-ending rhyming couplets may seem excessive and the overelaborate puns may be a bit too much for some productions, the actors of Santa Cruz Shakespeare have found humor and adopted the flaws in the writing by finding intent. Through the command of language, these actors revel in the irony and word-play and convey it accurately by using inflection and emphasis. Overall the acting is undeniably exceptional.

Brian Ibsen as Berowne draws audience attention from his first moment onstage and carries it with him throughout the rest of the night, balancing his duality of witty prankster and sincere heartthrob, while presenting some of the best speeches in the production.

Princess of France, played by Maggie Adams McDowell is a nice balance of flirtatious, yet strong, and with a perfect combination of wit and charm she commands the stage with casual ease. The shift in mood at the end of the play lies solely on her shoulders and can easily turn melodramatic, but her subtlety and sadness are true and realistic.

Her lady, Rosaline, the sharp-tongued witty heroine played by the beautiful and talented Nia Kingsley, is charming and believable, and Boyet (Patty Gallagher) the Princess’s older assistant, referenced as “an old love-monger” makes the minor character memorable and turns the stereotype of old wench on its head by being as vivacious and fun as any of the younger women.

However, while the other ladies, Maria (Essence Stiggers) and Katherine (Maria Rosado Gonzalez) are fair, they do not hold their own and are easily forgotten, even while onstage.  

As with other comedies Love’s Labour’s Lost it is not without a sub-plot. The self-endearing Don Adriano de Armado (Tommy A. Gomez) is outrageous enough on his own, but together with his mini-sized singing page, played by Kailey Azure Green, the duo are unstoppable (seriously, how do they keep a straight face?!).

Paige Lindsey White takes the place of grammar police in her role as Holofernes, the harsh schoolmistress, and points out the flaws in the love-inspired poetics being thrown around. And much similar to the acting troupe in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Holofernes conceives a play within a play tactic choosing to perform the boisterous and disjointed The Nine Worthies.

But I might have to say the most uproarious humor was Vincent Williams’ portrayal of Costard, the dull, yet in some ways genius, countryman who manages to mix up the love letters of Berowne and Don Armado. His straight-faced humor only gets better and better throughout the show and explosive belly-aching laughter can be felt throughout the theater when he breaks the fourth wall.

Another favorite moment is when the men confess their emotions and decide to visit their ladies disguised as “meeskavites” or Russians. They enter with full-Russian personas complete with costumed beards, hats, boots and even begin a slightly gaudy, but still impressive, hopak–like dance. The women, disguised in their own masks, have a little trick of their own up their sleeves; add in language confusion as they attempt Russian accents, and soon the party turns into one nonsensical misunderstanding.

The early 1900’s era costuming is superb throughout the show, but especially during the party scene as each of the four damsels enters in their own unique, but equally gorgeous gown. The set, a simple and unchanging two-storied palace with a single stature is solid and un-distracting. Scattered with multiple entrances and exits throughout, the set allows for constant movement in a sort of hide and seek way that is perfect for Shakespearean comedy. In addition, the sound and lighting of the outdoor theater is flawless. Safe to say, after five years performing independently at DeLaveaga, Santa Cruz Shakespeare knows what they’re doing.

Unfortunately right as the audience expects to clap and be on their merry way, Don Armando re-enters to sing a song with the entire cast adding at least 10 minutes to a show running 2.5+ hours (not to mention only a few actors could really carry a tune). Even if it were the finish to the show in the original text, it seems an odd finish now; one can sense the audience getting restless. This is, however, in no way a deal-breaker.

The over-all premise of the show is achieved; without the experience of love one is not truly learned. “Desire cannot be denied.” is the inspiration to the 2018 season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare, and thus far they are off to a powerful start. Cannot wait to see what’s next.

Photo by rr jones

Hunchback of Notre Dame

By Philip Pearce

TWO YEARS AGO, the long established Forest Theater Guild joined creative forces with a newly hatched Pacific Grove theater company called Paraphrase Productions. Paraphrase says its aim is to “shine a new light on theater through peer-to-peer mentoring of young adult artists in theatrical performance and creative excellence.” A slick, exciting new production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame suggests the young company is living up to its mission statement. 

With this Hunchback, the accent is on youth. Youthful director Andrew Marderian adroitly exploits the big playing areas of the Outdoor Forest Theater to suit the talents of a gifted cast of about 25 actor/singer/dancers few of whom look to be yet out of their twenties. They are joined by eleven young choristers robed and ready to support the action with anything from Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz show tunes to stretches of medieval liturgical chant. Thursday’s opening night audience was predominantly and appropriately young, excited by the show and ready to clap and whistle their approval of each musical number.

It’s the Disney version of the familiar tale so it adapts and simplifies Victor Hugo’s 19th century bestseller with a timely emphasis on the fate of social outcasts fighting to break through the borders and scale the social barriers (“God Help the Outcasts”) of a hidebound fifteenth century Paris.

The victim-hero Quasimodo, like The Phantom of the Opera, is so physically disfigured he can only hide from human contact in the shadows of his workplace, Quasimodo’s being the tower where he rings the bells of Notre Dame. A brief escape into the real world only earns him public humiliation when he’s voted the ugliest man in Paris at the tumultuous annual Feast of Fools. Malakai Howard acts and sings the role with a lurching gate and an unsentimental pathos that gradually gives way to powerful explosions of hope, of discovery, and of dark rage as he moves out of his tower hideaway (“Top of the World”) into the scary slums and alleyways of Paris. What draws him is a feisty gypsy dancer named Esmeralda, who stands up for him against mob mockery. Repelled at first by this grotesque bell-ringer, she learns to respect and pity him as a fellow outcast, as they join in a duet that dreams of a world where “Someday, life will be kinder.” Taylor Perez Rhoades brings a strong acting talent, powerful dancing and a fine singing voice to the role.  

Her more romantic interest is a soldier called Phoebus, who ironically suffers rejection from Esmeralda’s free and easy gypsy gang with its deep distrust of anything military. Only when he’s been stripped of his military commission and his social status does he become another street-wise protestor defying the bigotry of the Parisian church and state. Dale Thompson handles Phoebus’ shift from smug swagger to compassion and understanding with his accustomed insight and vocal skill, and ably doubles early in the action as Quasimodo’s dissolute dying father Jehan.

Quasimodo’s troubled uncle and religious mentor Frollo provides veteran screen and television actor Ron Joseph with what may be the script’s most complex character. In the words of the show’s opening chorus number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” Archdeacon Frollo “loved to purge the world of vice and sin and he saw corruption everywhere except within.” Outwardly a ruthless enemy of non-conformity and loose living, he nurses a hidden lust for the exotic Esmeralda that battles against a need to thwart her efforts to liberate Quasimodo, whom he must for secret family reasons keep locked in his belfry away from the world “Out There.” Joseph’s near-liturgical anthem “Hellfire,” which confronts the dark contradictions of his troubled soul, is a spooky highlight of the evening. 

The whole cast have an engaging commitment to their roles and the talent and discipline to bring them to theatrical life. A special delight is Adam Skerritt, who exudes an infectious mischief and sings in a glorious tenor as Esmeralda’s gypsy boss Clopin.

Peter Parnell’s book creates six cathedral gargoyles who serve as a secret support group for Quasimodo and old-world counterfoils to the dastardly Frollo. They provide a kind of Greek chorus commentary on the plot and work to imbue the vacillating hunchback with some social values as fixed but authentic as the stone faces they project from the cornices of Notre Dame. Sam Balali, Jessica Liang, Audrey Moonan, Lauren Pick, Colin Skerritt and Maya Sritharan do full justice to a script that gives life and individuality to each of these stone-faced architectural mentors.

Camrin Dannelly’s choreography is slick and relevant. Paul Davis has provided wheeled set units that shift smoothly, always dominated by a background of giant cathedral bells. Despite a running time of 150 minutes, including intermission, the action never lags. But a starting time of 7:15 means most of Act 1 happens in daylight, so sets, costumes and stage lighting effects only  come into their own after nightfall, with its familiar Carmel background of dark sky and surrounding forest.  

Youthful companies which emphasize learning and discovery are often awarded by jaded reviewers with a patronizing pat on the head and an airy hope of better things to come. This Hunchback of Notre Dame needs no such apologies. Paraphrase Productions have already learned how to present an integrated, mature and satisfying evening of musical theater. 

The show continues through next weekend.