A Decadent Meal Found in Shake & Bake: Love's Labour's Lost
It's Shakespeare…and I helped!
Abstinence is "flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth," charges the wily Lord Berowne in William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. The creators of Shake & Bake: Love's Labour's Lost, a revival production that serves comedy with an eight-course meal and copious booze, heartily agree. A collaboration of chef David Goldman, movement director Victoria Rae Sook, and director Dan Swern, this unique show puts a delicious spin on one of Shakespeare's most beguiling comedies, sending you home sated and more than a little tipsy. This isn't your grandma's dinner theater.
It begins with King Ferdinand of Navarre (Darren Ritchie) pledging to spend the next three years of his life fasting and studying; his best friends Berowne (Matthew Goodrich) and Longaville (Oge Agulué) begrudgingly agree to join him. We usually realize that their plan is doomed to fail with the arrival of the Princess of France (Sook) and her ladies-in-waiting, Rosaline (Mary Glen Fredrick) and Maria (Rami Margron). They've come to resolve a conflict over Aquitaine, territorial disputes being the great aphrodisiac of Renaissance Europe. Ferdinand insists that they must camp outside the court in keeping with the strictures of his regimen, a decision that invariably moves the most exciting action to the surrounding park.
In this production, we know the game is up from the moment we enter back room at 94 Gansevoort Street, which has been decorated with rich fabrics and a perimeter of couches, conveying the vibe of a Roman orgy (production design by Shawn Lewis). A man in a chef's jacket (Joe Ventricelli in a role devised for this production that cleverly aggregates several smaller parts) prepares canapés on a central cart as the cast serves water and pickled vegetables, the menu's only concession to the King's asceticism.
Goldman's tasting menu smartly echoes and enhances the story: As the comic Spaniard Don Armando (Charles Osborne) delivers a monologue professing his love of the country girl Jaquenetta, onions sizzle in the background, providing ideal sound and olfactory design. The French arrive bearing wine, bien sûr. When the men disguise themselves as Muscovites, they treat us to little shots of beet gazpacho, which they understandably misrepresent as borscht. Brisket tacos are served during intermission, the bounty of a successful hunt.
Close readers of Shakespeare will notice some missing characters: Navarre and France are each down a companion (Dumaine and Katharine, respectively). They are not particularly missed. More noticeable is the absence of Jaquenetta, although she is nearly conjured through the force of Armando's exuberant love letter to her. A natural comedian, Osborne almost runs away with the show in the dual roles of Armando and the princess's attendant Boyet, here portrayed as an incorrigibly sassy glamour bear. Margron also impresses in the double roles of Maria and Costard (Armando's rival for Jaquenetta's affection). Margron is so versatile and transformative that I went through most of the play thinking that two different actors played these roles.
Swern's nimble staging matches the economy of his well-shorn script: The run time is cut down to two hours, with the whole Kingdom of Navarre effortlessly squeezing into the dining room. Kitchen utensils serve as props (Armando gloriously uses tongs as castanets), and food preparation becomes resonant stage business. Sook's wittily choreographed dances evoke Elizabethan jigs while executing the essential tasks of serving and bussing each dish. Clad in chef's outfits altered slightly to correspond to each character, the cast welcomes us into what feels like an intimate dinner party amongst a group of particularly nerdy friends.
The creative team also understands the crucial role alcohol plays as a lubricant of hospitality: In addition to two wine pairings and a specialty cocktail, we're invited to do shots (from a bottle of Jägermeister, naturally) when the princess bags a stag in the king's park. Would you believe that the verse sounds better the more you drink?
Happily, the company of Shake & Bake understands that Shakespeare's comedies thrive in a joyous, inventive, and thoroughly irreverent atmosphere. These plays were written to be performed for the groundlings as they swilled ale and chowed down on turkey legs. Cheeto Dusted Mac n' Cheese (the junk-food-as-haute-cuisine fourth course) is certainly the Meatpacking District equivalent of that. While Shake & Bake gives the impression of a pop-up restaurant in Manhattan's trendiest neighborhood, I hope it sticks around to become a more permanent establishment.