Blackfriars Playhouse: “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

The last two days of this little academe that is the Blackfriars Conference has oscillated between reconnecting with warmly familiar faces—friends from Midwest universities or who attended graduate school with me as well as a large Oregon Shakespeare Festival contingent in town for honors—and enjoying hearing a range of arguments and ways of presenting them following the affordances of the indoor playhouse modeled after the early modern period. So, too, did the evening performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost conscript everyday tools for belonging—the music, texts, spaces, faces we share—for a particular kind of meditation on the crafting of nostalgia.

As I have ongoing research on pre- and inter-show performances, I was excited when I realized that this production organized such extratheatricals as part of the event. For the half hour before the performance, we were treated to thoughtfully arranged (for the vocalists as well as to the parts they would play) covers of thematically relavent pop songs. My ears perked up at “You Don’t Know Me,” a Ben Folds/Regina Spector duet I sang along to live only a few weeks ago in a Portland venue for the Paper Airplane Tour. This was followed by TLC’s “No Scrubs,” while intermission included selections from the Spice Girls and N’Sync.

Unable to keep from singing along to the warm three- and five-part harmonies, I became suddenly aware of who wasn’t.

This Stationers account book fragment at the University of Illinois was discovered in 1953 in the binding of a collection of sermons by Thomas Gataker (1637). The creases where it went around the spine of the book are still visible.

These tunes summon a particular adolescence of thirty-somethings; folks in their late thirty’s and up, as well as the students in the low twentys, had no purchase on the nostalgia cultivated.  I was suddenly very aware of my Xennial status. Was I—the generation of The Simpsons, Buffy and the Vampire Slayer, The Oregon Trail, and Nintendo—the intended audience for the ASC production? I hadn’t assumed so. The selection bias of the audience, including conference attendees and octogenarian subscribers, skewed any sense of testing this notion. Regardless, it was interested to be suspended in the cognitive dissonance of cozy nostalgia and self-conscious liminality.

We returned to our seats when the drinks cart disappeared and pre-show notices from the Prince of Navarre were being announced. Side-by-side were his decrees banning women and cellphones—a zeugma unlooked-for but clever nonetheless. We were then treated to one more cover song, during which the male characters joined in a drunken dance ending hungover splayed across the stage. The pre-show bled straight into the text of the play. The extratheatrical laminated onto the billed event, conscripting the ease of our every-day personas as audiences into the world of the play. (To clarify, I follow the Butlerian line that all identity is preformative.) Perhaps the hope was that we would consider the theatrical world of Navarre and its events as ordinary, as just another day in the life of the Prince and his commitatus.

My own work also focuses on the effects of playing in repertory and the economic and phenomenological benefits of the stock company model. Thus, this production was a chance to test some overlaps as the same actors of The Fall of King Henry comprised this cast. René Thorton, Jr., who was Richard of Gloucester the previous evening, now commanded a wry Berowne. This repertorial side-by-side asked us to think about these two figures as ring-leaders of male communities—the sons of York and the Navarre peers. As a study, one might ask: what qualities does it take to be an effective leader of a homosocial group? It would seem the best command of wit, a willingness to be suspicious and critical, and necessarily not the top of the political chain, are commonalities. Were it actually Richard III in rep, I wondered how the wooing of Rosaline (Allie Babich) might stand against the courtship of Anne.

I was additionally excited to see a more balanced use of the actors of color (per my discussion in the previous post) and the featured use of Shunté Lofton. As the Princess of France, she demonstrated a range of emotional depth: self-conscious flirtation, diplomatic savvy, mourning thrust into a public forum. Having raced about in Henry in a number of servant, service, and apprentice-type roles, the rep model drew to my attention the ways in which the Princess organizes stage business and the degree to which her dialogue serves plot rather than character development.

Since I am participating in a colloquy on original practices in contemporary productions, a word about what was in use here. In both productions it was noticeable that continuous action—the marked overlapping of entrances and exits from dedicated doors—was not in use, although all other markers of the trade were. The lovely arras (“tapestry”) used to create aside effects was borrowed from the walls of the Blackfriars itself. This seems thoughtfully in the spirit of the early Elizabethan companies that primarily toured for a living, making the most of what a particular guildhall had available for the performance that night. Likewise, the range of instruments used in the extratheatrical moments (guitar, trumpet) effected the “revels, masques, and merry hours” in the world of the play as well as bookending the performance event. Ringing anew in this context was the line, “wear his colors like a tumbler’s hoop.” In these ways the production had a self-sustaining (-generating?) ethos that seemed apropos to its green world setting.

From left: Lauren Ballard, Shunte Lofton, David F. Meldman, Tim Sailer, Allie Babich. Photo by Lindsey Walters, courtesy of the American Shakespeare Center.

While the musical selections conjured a sense of both belonging and otherness, the production’s use of venue-specific affordances (arras, repertory system) re-affirmed my sense of be “in” on the game—belonging. If we are considering the extratheatrical (as well as the basic tenant of Performance Studies that every performance is a unique evidentiary instance), than the tone of the actor talk-back has bearing. The entire cast and the director, Matthew Redford Davies (who gave an excellent paper on stage Spanish accents earlier in the week), returned to the stage. Theatre-goers and scholars alike asked the same question in three or four different iterations: what’s with the ending? It seems irresolved, flagging future events that might bring these four couples together in marriage, stymied as they are by the King of France’s sudden death. The conversation suddenly became combative: some scholars asked if Love’s Labour’s Won existed, should that have any bearing on their process; the actors cared not whether this existed in a tone eye-rollingly dismissive of a “scholarly” question; and yet others pointed out that we have factual evidence from book sales that it did exist. (Here for more on Won.) This seemed to annoy the actors all the further as the scholars were suddenly having a fact-off.

In part, they were right to be annoyed. Any play, in a series or a one-off, does/must/can stand alone. This is true today as much as it was in the period based on the repertory schedule and takings recorded in Henslowe’s diary. The fact of the performance event necessitates this. As a Theatre Historian by trade, however, I am sympathetic to those who fact-check in the open forum, as this is precisely the kind of venues where “bad” or unproductive myths get circulated. With so many grad students about, it seems all the more important. Perhaps Poe excepted, few authors are more subject to myth-making than Shakespeare.

Regardless, in the wake of this discussion, the nostalgic balm of this most poetical of early modern plays was fragmented, gone. As one who frequently runs performance talk-backs, it was instructive to think about the affective results of this kind of engagement after a performance. I live in hope for tomorrow, bringing with it the final piece in their repertory, Much Ado About Nothing, to give me a last chance to engage again with belonging and decision in the “little academies” of Shakespeare performance and Shakespeare study.

  • The American Shakespeare Center’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA, 7 July to 24 November 2017.
  • Tickets available online or at the box office.
  • Follow along with the conference on Twitter: #BFConf17.

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