Fort Worth — According to Tennyson, in springtime a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. That’s all well and good, if you aren’t in a place that crams all four seasons in a week. (Looking at you, Texas.) Stolen Shakespeare Guild celebrates the season, however ephemeral, with two of the Bard’s most beautiful examinations of that equally unpredictable emotion. As if to make up for the inconstancy, they present Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost with the same directors, Lauren and Jason Morgan and most of the same cast, and packaged as the Love’s Labour’s Won festival, referring to the lost Shakespeare play that some speculate could be another title for Much Ado.
Both productions benefit by virtue of their pairing, revealing Shakespeare’s complicated relationship to relationships.
The Morgans’ set for both shows is a romantic assemblage of arches, arbors and Pinterest-y hanging lights. The costumes, courtesy of Lauren Morgan, are fancy gowns for the ladies and doublets, tights and dress shoes for the men. There’s a second floor balcony and levels with topiary lollipop planters. It’s all swathed in dappled Tuscan colors as if impressionism originated with the Italians.
Much Ado begins with Lauren Morgan serenading the ladies at Leonato’s villa as they picnic. The women are awaiting the return of the men and Beatrice (Felicia Bertch) is amusing them all with her jesting at the absent men’s expense. Love’s Labour’s begins with King Ferdinand (Andrew Manning) encouraging his bros to join him in signing a contract in which they’ll swear off women in pursuit of great study.
Shakespeare throws complications into the scenarios by adding the opposite sex. In Much Ado, the soldiers return. In Love’s, the fair ladies of France appear. This is a bigger problem for Ferdinand and his newly minted, he-man, woman-haters club than it is for the ladies at Leonato’s. In fact, we’ve learned, in Much Ado, that Hero (Jessica Taylor) has a thing for Claudio (Robert Twaddell). Romance, then, is the order of the day. It’s only a danger for the too-much protesting Beatrice and her foil Benedick (Brad Stephens). Contrast that Ferdinand’s court who, of course, are instantly smitten with the French ladies, but have to wrestle with admitting it to themselves first and to each other, second.
Shakespeare begins by making love a plaything. In Much Ado, the characters will plot to entrap Beatrice and Benedick into admitting their affection for one another. Stolen Shakespeare shows their surest footing in these scenes using the many hiding places to great farcical effect. Bertch is a gifted physical comedienne and Stephens capitalizes on his slightly goofy take on Benedick. In Love’s, they reap similar success in the hiding gambit. As each of Ferdinand’s knights wrestles with writing love letters, they’re successively discovered. But it all can’t be fun and games.
Shakespeare sharpens the edge of the plot in Much Ado with a mustache-twirling villain, Don John (Adam Kullman) bastard brother of the victorious Don Pedro (Michael Johnson). He orchestrates a misunderstanding of Hero’s virtue that will be revealed at her wedding altar. The only hint that love could be anything other than fun is the brief moment when Don Pedro seems to propose to Beatrice, a moment Johnson and Bertch pull off with exquisite and appropriate gut-churning cringe. Don Pedro will remain the loose thread at the end of a play that ends in as pretty as a bow as one can tie.
Not so with Love’s.
As a portrait of the court’s dilemma in extremis, Don Adriano (Tyler Shults) is also a knight struck center by Cupid’s bow, but he wrestles less and loves more than the elevated characters. His antics are ridiculous but are somehow more honest. Maybe that’s why Shakespeare lets him end up with his girl, Jaquenetta (Stefanie Glenn) while the King does not end up with the Princess (Lauren Morgan). At the moment where everything seems to be tidying up, news comes that makes things get real, real fast. In the end, the girls had taken the boys’ antics for nothing more than merriment and so there isn’t time for proper wooing before they leave. Here the misunderstanding may not have resulted in Much Ado’s level of calamity, but it also isn’t as neatly resolved. As Don Armado remarks, “It doesn’t end like a play."
Repertory is a special treat, allowing us to see the actors again in different roles. Michael Johnson’s soulful Don Pedro is replaced by a hilariously, know-it-all schoolmaster, Holofernes. His sidekick, Nathaniel, is a sycophantic curate played with silly exuberance by Delmar H. Dolbier who was the serious Friar Francis in Much Ado. Sometimes the roles are two sides of a similar coin. Richard Stubblefield squeezes every drop out of the word-abusers, Dogberry and Costard.
Sometimes the shoe fits better in one instance than the other. Kim Titus’ Leonato is a paternalistic father figure, but the same tone and tenor is downright uncomfortable as the lecherous Boyet. Some aren’t in both shows. Bertch and Taylor are missed in Love’s, but the appearance of Shannon Garcia as Rosaline and Tyler Shults as Don Armado make up for it. And in special circumstances, audience favorites return. Samantha Snow and Terry Yates punctuate sections with surefire comedic bits.
Stolen Shakespeare’s festival atmosphere is palpable, like a family having fun. Maybe that’s why the shows seem more comfortable in their farcical moments. The great scenes of Shakespeare are well represented. When Hero reveals herself, for instance, there are chills, but those scenarios are baked into the Bard’s recipe. The productions could both benefit from the gravitas that underpins the character’s personal story. Beatrice laughs at her own jokes instead of needing the laugh of her hearers. She and Benedick both have an easygoing approach to love that dulls the sharpness of their wit as well as lowers the stakes of their romance. Love’s has similarly lowered stakes. King Ferdinand’s knights don’t fear their sovereign. The instantly recognizable dynamics of unchecked authority (see: Michael Scott in The Office) is missing. Without the built-up tension, the negativity unleashed during the taunting of the worthies seems out of place, though it does afford Holofernes’ great line: this is not generous, not gentle, not humble.
But not everyone will feel this way. Perhaps, too much ado. What’s unmistakable is that Stolen Shakespeare is a labor of love that isn’t lost.
And that’s not nothing.
The remainder of the Love's Labour's Won Festival is:
- Friday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. — Much Ado About Nothing
- Saturday, Feb. 25 at 2 p.m. — Love's Labour’s Lost
- Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. — Love's Labour’s Lost
- Friday, March 3 at 8 p.m. — Love's Labour’s Lost
- Saturday, March 4 at 2 p.m. — Love's Labour’s Lost
- Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m. — Much Ado About Nothing
- Sunday, March 5 at 2 p.m. — Much Ado About Nothing