An irreverent, super-charged 'Love's Labor's Lost' from Quintessence

There’s something just a little magical about the origin of Love’s Labour’s Lost, in production now (having lost Labour's "u") through April 23 by the Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy.

Shakespeare’s early romcom, if I can be permitted the terminological vulgarity, didn’t premiere before London’s hoi polloi.

It was first performed at court for Queen Elizabeth sometime over Christmas 1597, making it Shakespeare’s first play to have a royal opening and one of a few specifically presented for the Virgin Queen.

One wonders how Shakespeare imagined the queen would respond to his strange comedy, a linguistically overdetermined  mass of wordplays, puns and rhymes about the power of love to subdue anyone foolish enough to shut himself off from it.

Quintessence, which has a well-earned reputation for its imaginative productions of classics, treats the play with a massive, head-spinning dose of irreverence, which beautifully highlights the play’s sometimes surreal humor.

Director Alexander Burns, leading his 28th production at Quintessence, sets the entire affair on a bare two-level stage surrounded on three sides by the audience.

Contemporary fashions – including slinky evening gowns for the ladies – booming house and hip-hop music and visual references to pop cult icons give the production a contemporary edge.

Pumped, hyped, and keyed-up – sometimes a little excessively – the actors literally run around each other and run, en masse, around the stage in wonderfully choreographed scenes that include several sidesplitting dance numbers.

A court theater of sorts, Love’s Labor’s Lost is about an unmarried, if not entirely virginal, monarch, King Ferdinand of Navarre (Lee Cortopassi, Mother Courage and her Children, "The Three Musketeers) who decides to devote himself to uninterrupted study for three years.

What’s a monastic life worth if you can’t share it with your bosom buddies. So the foolish man-child gathers his three closest pals – Berowne (John Williams, The Misanthrope), Longaville (Ashton Carter, Wilde Tales) and Dumaine (recent University of the Arts graduate Christopher Garofalo) –  and has them sign a contract wherein they forswear all pleasures of the flesh, including all female company.

It all falls apart, of course, the second Ferdinand and his lads lay their eyes on a visiting dignitary, the Princess of  France (Mattie Hawkinson, Mourning Becomes Electra) and her entourage of fine ladies, Rosalie (Meadow Brook Theatre alumnus Dana Kreitz) , Maria (Kristin Devine, Gypsy at Connecticut Repertory Theater), and Katherine (Aneesa Neibauer, Wilde Tales).

Burns elicits solid performances throughout. Cortopassi is wonderfully belligerent as the king. He’s perfectly matched by Hawkinson, whose French princess is no delicate flower, but a formidable, wily conqueror in her own right.

But Josh Carpenter’s performance as court hanger-on Don Armado is likely to be remembered by area theatergoers for years to come. The actor, whose Quintessence productions include Doctor Faustus and Saint Joan, is likely to divide critical opinion down the line.

He plays the crazy-in-love courtier with a thick, quasi-Spanish, quasi-Latino accent that recalls Al Pacino’s crazed turn in Scarface as a cocaine-binging Cuban American drug lord. Carpenter, whose character is listed in the text as “a fantastical Spaniard,” burns up the oxygen around him with such abandon, it’s sometimes impossible to understand him. I’m sure that was the intended effect.

But it encapsulates my chief complaint about this production:  While the energy is infectious and the physical performances inspired, Burn’s production sacrifices some of the linguistic magic for which the play is famous. 

Love’s Labor's Lost

Through April 21, presented by Quintessence Theatre Group, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave.
Tickets: $15-$40.
Information:  215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org