Kieran Campion in Love's Labour's Lost
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Kieran Campion in Love's Labour's Lost
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Structurally, William Shakespeare's early-career play, Love's Labour's Lost, which is now receiving a rare production by the Huntington Theatre Company, is about as complex as one of those historic-comical tableaux that Shakespeare's rubes often put on for the aristocrats. No sooner have the young King of Navarre (Kieran Campion) and his three closest buds, intent on their studies, forsworn the company of women than who should show up but the Princess of France (Mia Barron) and her coterie. The two quartets mesh almost mathematically.

Without any real dramatic development to speak of, although the opposing teams speak at great length, four troths are plighted in the play; but these romances must be put on hold for a year while the princess mourns a sudden death in her family. It's a somber device on which to end a supposed comedy, but at least it provides a welcome ironic twist. Better still, the swains' abstinence will serve a real purpose -- that of proving fidelity -- instead of just being an empty intellectual exercise.

Huntington Theatre artistic director Nicholas Martin has managed to wring every possible drop of charm from this lesser work. He had the wise idea of reframing it in the relatively carefree days of 1910, and set designer Alexander Dodge captures the mood perfectly with an impressive trompe l'oeil backdrop of a library rotunda that gives way to a majestic oak whence the various lovesick suitors can eavesdrop on their fellow miscreants. Mariann Verheyen's costuming is quite lovely; her veiled hats and Edwardian dusters make for excellent disguises as the young women effect a temporary identity-swap to check out their suitors' modus operandi -- and also to get back at the boys, who've shown up as Cossacks to test the females' susceptibility.

What feels most modern about the production, however, is the way in which the young ladies fondly mock their male counterparts. Zabryna Guevara is especially sharp as Rosaline, with enough 'tude to stand up to the garrulous Berowne (played by rising star Noah Bean, who grips this talky part with a winning authority). Campion and Barron are well matched if a bit formal as the lovestruck royals; the stiffness no doubt goes with the roles.

As often happens in Shakespeare, it's the comic outriggers who carry the show: Will LeBow, mustachioed like Dali, as the "fantastical" Spanish blowhard Don Adriano de Armado; Jeremy Beck, gotten up like Gainsborough's Blue Boy, as the impish page Moth; Neil A. Casey as the Princess's factotum Boyet (he opts to play it fey, which works wonderfully); and the marvelously sonorous Robert Jason Jackson as the orotund schoolmaster Holofernes.

In the end, one leaves the theater craving more substance and satisfaction. It's not just that the play ends on a dour note; real emotion is missing here. Yet the fact that this little gavotte still entertains at all so many centuries after its composition is miracle enough. Maybe enlightenment is too much to ask for.