08/12/2013 11:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2013

First Nighter: "Love's Labour's Lost" Loses More Than Wins in the Park; Downtown's "Under the Greenwood Tree" As You'll Like It

It would be a pleasant chore to report that Shakespeare in the Park's Love's Labour's Lost is an amusingly silly musical tribute to the Bard, as it's directed and liberally fiddled with by hot-hot-hot Alex (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love) Timbers and hung with hot-hot-hot Michael (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Civilians in-house tunesmith) Friedman's songs.
It's true that a number of genuinely entertaining elements abound, among them Colin Donnell's cunningly agitated Berowne, Daniel Breaker's staunch-until-he-lets-loose King of Navarre and Caesar Samayoa's raucous Spanish swain Armado. Choreographer Danny Mefford stages several audience-rousing production numbers, not least one featuring the Middletown High School Marching Band. John Lee Beatty has provided a lush set: a resort where a class of 2008 reunion is happening.
Yet, despite the truly funny gags that occasionally show up from Timbers's computer rather than Shakespeare's quill, I can't condone, much less fully recommend, this treatment, which is described as "based on" the playwright's early comedy of four young men swearing off the sexually active life just as four nubile young women appear.
Call me curmudgeonly, but I enjoy Shakespeare's predominantly sunny jibe at youth's foolishness too devotedly to approve what Timbers has made of it. In the past, it's struck me that the director-librettist believes the only way to engage today's younger audiences (engaging them is a noble endeavor) is to dismiss anything that hasn't happened in the last few decades as no longer worthy of respect.
With Bloody Bloody..., he achieved his end by mocking history as bawdily as he knew how. Now with Love's Labour's Lost, he chops away at Shakespeare's poetry, preferring to insert four-letter obscenities, references to contemporary phenomena (performance art, Brown University, other charged states of being, like horniness) and even fellatio under a more common term.
It could be suggested that were Shakespeare writing today, he might have gone this route. But though it may be a convincing argument for something like Andy Goldberg's brilliant Bomb-itty of Errors (a rap recasting of The Comedy of Errors), it doesn't fly here--hinting, as it does, that the original script is no longer relevant to today.
Watching what Timbers mounts, it's likely that few spectators will be juiced to read the play. If no one does--no one who doesn't already know the piece--he or she will never realize how much of Shakespeare's fun, not to say the beauty of his language, has been stripped bare. For many Bardolators, the tart Berowne-Rosaline (Maria Thayer) exchanges are a strong warm-up for Benedick and Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing, but too much of the young ladies' wise banter is now contained in reductive lyrics or missing altogether.
Which brings us to Friedman's score, conducted with two-fisted force by Justin Levine, who also comes front and center to play court hanger-on Moth. When buxom Rebecca Naomi Jones took her solo turn with the tough and terrific "Love's a Gun" (will Pat Benatar cover it?), I was shocked. I've heard numerous Friedman scores and, honestly, have never encountered a single ditty I'd care to hear again. This one, I would.
My quarrel with Friedman is that somewhere deep within him he doesn't like songs--regards them as an unconvincing, even regressive, method of expressing otherwise unexpressable emotions. His response is to write what could be called anti-songs, songs that signal they don't want to conform to antiquated formulae, don't want to be hummed as ticket buyers exit, don't want to be associated with what he apparently regards as the obsolete, or square, aim of popular songwriting.
Anyway, Timbers's nadir as librettist this outing is a sequence that might be considered mild when compared to the racier patches. It involves Armado, who spends a good deal of his stage time trying to compose a threnody to his one-sided inamorata, Jaquenetta. But the low point isn't when Armado intones "Jaquenetta," Friedman's send-up of Man of La Mancha's "Dulcinea." It's when he reads a poem he says he dreamed up. It's Shakespeare's Sonnet 29--"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes...."
As Armado finishes reading what he's scrawled, he and Moth look at each other and agree the result is forgettable. Their dismissal only elicits a small titter from the audience, perhaps because Timbers's intended irony has just been dropped on too many listeners who don't recognize what they've just heard--one of the most beautiful poems in the English language and one inhabiting an extravagantly higher plane than any of the lyrics added here.
When I absorbed this plot turn, a loud bell rang in my head. Only two nights earlier, I'd caught up with The Designated Mourner, the three-character Wallace Shawn play at the Public's downtown address. In it, narrator Jack (Shawn) discusses highbrow and lowbrow art, ultimately hitching himself to low brow art and taking pleasure in a collapsing civilization's discarding John Donne. Jack even boasts that he recently urinated on a poetry book.
I know the jibe at Sonnet 29 is intended to be humorous, but, really, in an increasingly dumbed-down culture, can't it be viewed as a first step in Jack's direction? Okay, perhaps I'm making too much of this--pace Alex Timbers--but I wouldn't put too much money on patrons racing home to read with anticipation Sonnet 29 and its companions.
Continuing to think about what's been done with and to this Love's Labour's Lost, I can only conclude that the word suiting it best is: pandering. Well, maybe that's just Timbers's homage to Shakespeare, who in Troilus and Cressida does introduce Pandarus.
Curiously enough, another musical adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy, this one As You Like It, is on view at the Flea. It's the Phillstock Under the Greenwood Tree, which when it began hit me as trouble. The 17-member cast instantly proved badly in need of further Shakespeare training.
Then they began singing the hugely appealing songs adapter-director Tyler Phillips composed with a liberal attitude towards Shakespeare's words. (Carly Howard, appearing as Rosalind, is the co-director.) The intention here came into focus. Sometimes delivered as solos, sometimes as small group numbers, sometimes as harmoniously-arranged numbers for the entire cast (playing instruments as well), the cast's spell took effect.
These are talented and enthusiastic singer-dancer-musicians who've chosen to present an enchanting Bard song cycle within the context of a truncated script. It would be difficult to choose a favorite among the nine pieces (and several reprises), but there isn't a dud among them. Cheers to Phillips and company for showing how Shakespeare can be set to contemporary, folk-tinged music. Hey, Tyler, where's the CD?