Populated with the Italian stock characters of the braggart (Allen Gilmore as Don Adriano de Armado), sassy servant (James Newcombe as Boyet) and dumbass (Steve Pringle as dullard Constable Dull), Shakespeare’s thinly plotted Love’s Labor’s Lost, under Mardi Maraden’s direction, still delivers clever blank verse wordplay and embedded sonnets in a lucid, lurid and luscious package at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
In the land of Navarre, the intellectuals decide to ban women from the court to focus on academic pursuits, “the mind will banquet while the body pine,” so, on cue, in pure sitcom form, the Princess of France (Jennie Greenberry) and her provocative coterie (Jennifer Latimore, Laura Rook and understudy Leryn Turlington) show up to entice, clad in Christina Poddubiuk’s lush 18th century costumes and chapeaus covering side ponytails. The men immediately contract “the plague, and caught it up your eyes.”
King Ferdinand (John Tufts) and Berowne (Nate Berger) decree that women breaking the oath would lose their tongues, and the other men (John Tufts, Madison Niederhauser and Julian Hester) would “endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise.” And yet the women, forced to stay out in tent a mile away in the war “against [man’s] own affections,” outwit the men diplomatically and sexually, mocking their love letters.
Berowne, hiding up a lovely, large, be-lamped tree shading the entire pastoral stage, complete with a long love swing (designed by Kevin Depinet), sees the folly of the men’s oaths “to fast, to study, and to see no woman,” and their inevitable failure.
In the final act, the death of the French king takes precedence over love games, and, in a reversal, the four ladies impose a yearlong period of chastity and reflection on the men. The women then say, meh, we’ll see how we feel. Snap.
There are some unintentionally timely touches, including Sean Spicer-type verbal betrayals where “they have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps,” and there’s also a duplicitous mess of mustachioed Muscovites. And the parting words echo our current national divide: “You that way: we this way.”
Love’s Labor’s Lost runs through March 26 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Buy tickets online or by calling 312-595-5600.