Anyone who’s ever tried to make a New Year’s resolution knows the drill. You make an elaborate promise to yourself, usually something with a lot of moving parts (I’ll get healthy this year, which means I’ll quit smoking, go to the gym three times a week, get to bed early, and enough with the Häagen-Dazs already) and before the Christmas tree even hits the curb, you’re smoking and lying around in your saggiest underwear eating chocolate-chocolate-chip ice cream in front of Elimidate. Those of us blessed with two New Years in a 365-day span — Jews, for example, or Chinese Americans — get to go through it twice as often.
If it’s any comfort, the broken resolution is nothing new. Shakespeare made fun of it in 1593 when he wrote the comedy Love’s Labor’s Lost, now splashing its merry way through area parks courtesy of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. But the resolution in question is a lot tougher. In an attempt to make the Spanish kingdom of Navarre into “a palace of academe,” for three years the young King and his three lords shall live in perfect asceticism. They’ll sleep three hours and “not be seen to wink all of the day,” they’ll fast one day a week and take only one meal a day the other six and, worst of all, they won’t so much as look at women, let alone woo them. Lords Dumaine and Longaville think it a fine idea that “the mind shall banquet, though the body pine”; and while Lord Berowne has his initial doubts (emphasized here by ostentatious martini-mixing) he eventually goes along too, and the game is on.
That is, until four smart, beautiful women show up: the Princess of France and her ladies. They’ve come to talk about the transfer of Aquitaine to Navarre, but are rudely barred from Navarre’s court because of the injunction. Stewing in a tent set up in the park outside, the ladies get their satisfaction when, one after another, the lords fall for them. The scene where this happens is one of the funniest of the first act, as each man in turn soliloquizes about the object of his affection, unaware that the other lords are eavesdropping from behind the potted plants. Eventually all four men are unmasked, and decide to break their vow and go a-wooing, which they accomplish hilariously dressed as “Muscovite” (Russian) soldiers. There are a couple of subplots, notably one involving the priggish hanger-on Don Armado and his love for the country wench Jacquenetta; there’s a bumptious fool named Costard (Michael Ray Wisely) who mixes up the delivery of love letters thereby creating a furor; the ladies decide to trick the lords to teach them a lesson, and everyone ends up … not married.
LLL is unusual for Shakespeare for many reasons. For one thing, it looks like he thought it up all by himself. The idea of personal genius (“I made it up myself”) and its intrinsic virtue only came into fashion during the German Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Up until that point, there was no dishonor in openly cribbing from other sources, which Shakespeare often did. Other than the character of Don Armado, who may be based on a real-life Spaniard who hid in the court of Navarre disguised as a princess, this play is apparently entirely new. But what’s really different is that at the end, instead of four gaily-waltzing freshly-married couples, there are four women telling their swains that the men are going to have to prove themselves by waiting a year and a day. It’s unexpectedly somber, especially here, as director Kenneth Kelleher has the couples dancing rather sadly before parting. The seriousness of the second set of vows the men have made is thus emphasized.
Love’s Labor’s Lost is also the cleverest of Shakespeare’s plays, laden with more than two hundred puns, in-jokes, and other wordplay (Shakespeare invented the phrase “the naked truth” for this play). Many of these jokes are specific to their time, which can make the going a little awkward for modern audiences unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the Elizabethan court, for which the play was apparently commissioned. Yet LLL is a more coherent production from SF Shakes than last season’s Winter’s Tale. The acting is generally solid, from Michael Ray Wisely’s oddly accented Costard (when told that he must fast in penance, he says “I hope when I do it, I shall do it on a full stomach”) to the excellent, slightly caustic interplay between lovers Berowne and Rosaline (Robert Sicular and Jennifer Wagner). Hector Correa’s Don Armado is big, foolish (mispronouncing “epilogue” as “epilogway”), and eventually noble; Christina Vecchiato as his much-smarter page Moth is a lot of fun to watch. With its Fellini-inspired design, this LLL also is fun to look at. The costumes are adorable; the Princess and her slumber party of a court are a fantasia of oversize dark glasses and op-art evening wear, the men wear sharp suits, and Don Armado struts around in a red robe with a tiger collar. Costard makes most of his entrances on a scooter with Jacquenetta perched on the back, and the set is cheerful and warm. So while it may not be as accessible as, say, The Comedy of Errors or as magic as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this is a pleasant diversion, if not a glowing endorsement of sticking to one’s resolutions.