American Players Theatre: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Everyone loves the major comedies of William Shakespeare. But they often don’t the credit that they deserve because the plots get convoluted or the humor gets lost in translation into the 21st Century. But not so with the American Players Theatre presentation of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Director Brenda DeVita has pushed Love’s Labour’s Lost from simple comedy to slapstick to farce…and the audience loved it…I don’t remember ever hearing as much laughter…giggles…or titters as those elicited in response to this play.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

And it probably helped that the story here is more direct though not particularly anymore sensible than other Shakespearean comedies…but knowing who the characters are and how they arre expected to act made it all work the more. But DeVita’s wily insertions of cultural touch points like pratfalls and physical comedy reminiscent of ‘professional’ wrestling, some moves that referred back to Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy and a moment of Hans and Franz style, we want to pump you up, made for easy laughter.

One stand out here…Josh Krause as Dull, the constable…a character to watch as he did his best swaggering Barney Fife and toward just a bit of Charlie Chaplin…a magical character that I imagine would be easy to overlook in other theaters.

And another key yet not out front character is Costard, a groundskeeper, nimbly played by Jeb Burris. At first taken into custody by Dull for flaunting an edict from the King by ‘communing’ with the lovely Jaquenetta, Dull becomes the middle man in much of the plot as the plots transpires! One of his key tasks is to circumvent the king’s edict by secretly delivering missives from the gentlemen of the king’s court to the visiting ladies who are accompanying the Princess of France. And we all knew that hi-jinks were afoot when the stationary for each was a different color…and so they were all mis-delivered. Oafish clumsiness as written or a wily slyness as played by Burris? I am leaning toward the latter!

David Daniel & James Ridge, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of American Players Theatre.

Other amazing tidbits that build and support the laughter? That would include Nathaniel, a curate played to the hilt by David Daniel as a pompous preening and ever overreaching in his ultimately silly and laughable discourse with Holofernes. And Holofernes allows Shakespeare a chance to take an on target potshot at academics and in that role, James Ridge knows exactly where and how far to stretch to make it just absolutely hilarious.

Marcus Truschinski, Ronald Román-Meléndez, Jamal James & Nate Burger, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of American Players Theatre

And one of the most popular ‘interludes’ is the attempt by the King and his retinue to fool their French guests by appearing unannounced at the ladies camp in Russian garb and performing a number of ‘Russian dances’…and who can’t love the Russian bear in their company. And the unsurprised ladies make great sport of the gentlemen and put them in their place.

And one other sidebar to mention…Triney Sandoval is just a delight as Don Armando, a knight, professor, and guest in the court of Navarre. And is his mispronunciation of English a result of his inexperience with the language or a bit of word play on his part or that of the bard? It comes across as high comedy in Snadoval’s hands.

Jamal James, Nate Burger, Ronald Román-Meléndez & Marcus Truschinski, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

And no, I am not ignoring the principals. But in this presentation I think some of the most hilarious bits of the play come from the effective use of the minor and supporting characters…we know whence the King and Princess will go and what they will do.

But yes, I need to mention that Nate Berger was regal and intellectual as the King of Navarre but he wasn’t always too quick to see when his friends were making sport of him or when the Princess of France was getting the better of him. And the Princess of France? Phoebe Gonzalez was everything you expect from a princess and she was one with her retinue and ready to make sport of the King as well as fall in love with him. Amazing.

Jennifer Vosters, Melisa Pereyra, Phoebe González & Samantha Newcomb, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

And a number of back stage specialists need to be recognized.

There are a ton of situational changes in the story line that require a lot of costume choices and costume changes. So Holly Payne, costume designer, and Jeannette Christensen, assistant costume designer, deserve immense credit for dozens of elegant costumes for all characters and all situations. Their efforts made the story telling here even more magical!! And my hats off to the actors who managed to make numerous changes and keep the flow of the play going.

Triney Sandoval & Matthew Benenson Cruz, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

And then, again, the amazing work of Brian Cowing, choreographer, and Jeb Burris, fight director, needs to be applauded. The various scenes where characters are dancing…or gesticulating wildly in the presence of unseen others…and the dueling scene between Don Armando and his page Moth…were ballet…enchanting…and smooth as silk.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is being presented in The Hill Theatre and runs in repertory through October 2nd, 2022. If you want more information or want to order tickets, follow this link: LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Sidebar: There’s Always Room For Jello

David Daniel, Josh Krause & James Ridge, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre

[sorry if I overdid the photos]

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The Milwaukee Rep’s Professional Training Institute Production of Michael Rohd’s The Compass

First, a little bit of background on the Professional Training Institute!

The Professional Training Institute (PTI) is an advanced actor training program for students in 9-12 grade. The class of 2021/22 consists of 15 students from 10 different high schools including: Gabriela Bastardo (Golda Meir HS), Alexa Crump (Milwaukee HS of the Arts), Jonathan Edwards (Rufus King HS), Terynn Erby-Walker (Golda Meir HS), Ana Gutierrez (Ronald Reagan HS), Liam Jeninga (Delavan-Darien HS), Michael Loomans (Slinger HS), Kyra Mathias (Kettle Moraine School for Art and Performance), Molly McVey (Nicolet HS),
Yexuanj Rivera Melendez (Milwaukee HS of the Arts), Costello Mylott (Rufus King HS), Angel Rivera (Pius XI HS), Magdalyn Rowley-Lange (Ronald Reagan HS), Alexandria Woods (Rufus King HS), and Isabel Young (Walden III HS).

Just like last year, I went into this not knowing what to expect, and getting totally blown away by the experience. The Compass is a play as challenging as many of the others that the Rep has presented in the Stiemke Theater and the young people performed beyond what I expected of them. Just completely enthralling.

Now let’s get into the play a bit and then the performance. The Compass is billed as an interactive play…and as the Rep disclaims on their site, that doesn’t mean you will be hauled on stage to participate. But instead, in turn, the actors selected audience members as they entered the Stiemke and seated them in their designated area….and the group became their jurors and the area their jury box. So the audience is not acting, but not off the hook!

Marjan using The Compass, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

And the play’s content…a tech company has developed an app called The Compass. And after it gains access to your social media and you complete a profile questionnaire, it will make ‘decisions’ for you based on ‘your experience’ as recorded in the app, if you ask a question starting with “would i…’! And not unlike other contemporary apps, the young woman who is the main character relies heavily on The Compass to make her way through life. So as we move through the play, the questions multiply and the answers are always acted upon…and the big question that eventually gets asked after a major upheaval…is…how much responsibility does a person have for his/her actions if they are relying on this app?

Marjan and Chaz, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

So this is a very timely play. How much influence do we feel from social media or technology. And with the continued growth and development of artificial intelligence, is it inevitable that a real life app like The Compass will come to market? From the context in the play, it would seem that The Compass may be the apex of peer pressure.

So how does this play out in the play? Well we meet the characters in a rather random way it would seem. In little groups or clusters in vignettes and the time line is fluid, meaning one scene may be contemporary with the next one two years ago and the next a year from now. It is very effective story telling and the audience is kept up to date with the calendar date and relationship to the action being projected on the stage wall as the scenes change.

the trial, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

So the audience is kept a little off balance as we learn different facts in or out of order…and the reason that makes a difference…is the interactive nature of the play. At different points in the action…the action stops…and the actors visit their respective juries and ask a number of pointed questions that we discuss and the actor takes away a consensus or some pertinent quotes. These are worked into the play at different points and presented by the actors from the stage. And an interesting side note is the audience jury’s thoughts and ideas are also fluid and subject to change as new facts come into evidence as the timelines start to converge.

And the final focal point of the play is a trial, where Marjan (played by Terynn Erby-Walker) is on trial for a very serious transgression on her part…and the culpability for the event is the argument in the case. The prosecution of course puts the full responsibility on Marjan while the defense poses her as the victim of the technology that she has come to rely on to make decisions. It becomes a sticky mess…and far more complicated that it seems in my brief description here. But Michael Rohd provides us with seemingly valid reasons for both positions plus enough other data points to add additional doubt or conflict. At the end each audience juror has to vote guilty or not guilty and I’ll admit to changing my mind during the performance. And the final count at the Sunday matinee was 56 guilty and 55 not. I heard someone in the audience who had attended an earlier performance say that time it was 57 not guilty to 30 guilty.

Stand outs here start with Terynn Erby-Walker who is front and center much of the play. And although the character relies heavily on The Compass, Terynn also provides us with insight to a very thoughtful and involved high school student who takes on the adult world in a determined way…and is largely discounted. I also enjoyed Alexandria Woods as the prosecutor…very effective presence as someone who knows how to do what they need to do. Her opponent Jonathan Edwards as the defense attorney countered the prosecutor’s positions effectively and he too had the presence of a skilled and determined lawyer. And Gabriela Bastardo as Chaz, Marjan’s BFF who also uses The Compass but plays a more carefree character overall, unlike Marjan who often weighs her action. So Chaz is more of a just do it personality and unfortunately that mindset sets in motion the events leading to Marjan’s downfall.

the jury, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

Despite the amazing 2021/22 Milwaukee Repertory season that we just experienced, I think the PTI presentation of The Compass was the most rewarding theater I have seen this year.

photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

and the rest of the creative team: