Romance is the last thing on the minds of Ferdinand (Hoon Lee), the King of Navarre, and three compatriots Berowne (Nick Westrate), Longaville (played like a childish brat by Keith Eric Chappelle) and Dumaine (made a Latin spitfire Jorge Chacon), when the play begins. They're all just about to take a vow to devote themselves to their intellectual pursuits, and to do so, they're swearing off women.
However, when the Princess of France (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and three of her ladies in attendance (Rebecca Brooksher, Samira Wiley and Michelle Beck) arrive on official business, the men's vows are quickly forgotten as each falls in love with one of the visitors.
Alongside this octet of lovers is an awkward love triangle between an oafish Spanish Knight, Don Ardriano de Armado (Reg E. Cathey), a shrewdly cloddish clown Costard (Mousa Kraish), and a vampy country girl Jacquenetta (Stephanie DiMaggio).
The show also boasts a pair of caricatured and pompous men-of-letters, Holofernes (Steven Skybell) and Sir Nathaniel (Francis Jue), as well as the knight's page, Moth (also played by Wiley). And, in Coonrod's vision, Moth confusingly acts as a kind of Puck-like sprite, shooting arrows at the noblemen as they first declare their love, rather than at the more sensible moment when they first fall in love with their matches from the French court.
This sort of forced whimsy also courses through Sykbell and Jue's scenes, where the actors tear at the comedy with abandon. At times, Skybell, wearing a black robe and mortar board (the costumes -- which have a certain monochromatic elegance -- are by Oana Botz Ban), seems to be channeling a kind of contemporary Marx Brothers zaniness.
Similarly, DiMaggio plays Jacquenetta's coquettishness with Italianate lustiness that might make the girls of Jersey Shore jealous. And, as the Spaniard in this woman's thrall, Cathey adopts a stilted regality that undermines the character's overblown bravado and what should be hilarious misuses of English.
Two royal lovers prove to be more satisfying, but even here, Coonrod inflates the comedy unnecessarily, having the well-spoken and often moving Westrate writhe on the square of Astroturf that's a focal point of scenic designer John Conklin's sparse symbolic design, as Berowne resists the affection that he's feeling for Rosaline (played with smile-inducing tartness by Brookshire).
Cuts to the text -- notably a few lines that set up a reversal at the end -- rob the lovers' final moments of real meaning, and ultimately, the grins that the labored show has induced prove to be mere passing fancies, not the real deal.
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