Fine frivolity in ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost’

I can think of three good reasons to produce the comedy “Love’s Labor’s Lost” today.

We don’t know it, so any production will be illuminating. It’s a fresh challenge for actors, however many times they may have done “Twelfth Night” or “The Tempest.” And it shows Shakespeare on the brink of literary maturity; in 1594, he had just written the entertainingly overlong “Richard III” and was about to sail into the miraculous year that produced “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Richard II” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

He was still young, a 30-year-old who had turned out his first scripts five years before. Plot improbabilities and stock characters matter less than wordplay, which shows a man intoxicated with language. He wrote this to amuse, and Charlotte Shakespeare’s version outdoors on The Green capitalizes the “f” in fun.

Director Elise Wilkinson has updated the story to the 1960s and interjected music by the Beatles, from “A Hard Day’s Night” (used to introduce four courtiers in black suits and white shirts) to a final audience singalong of “All You Need Is Love.”

At first, the King of Navarre (Chaz Pofahl), philosophic Berowne (Crash Buist) and pals Longaville and Dumaine (Devin Clark and Dan O’Sullivan) say the one thing they don’t need is love. They have retired from society to study philosophy, intending to eat little, sleep less and avoid ladies altogether.

The arrival of the Princess of France (Tiffany Bear), tart-tongued Rosaline (Meghan Lowther) and friends Katherine and Maria (Leah-Palmer Licht) changes their minds. The men play silly games, even dressing as Russians and singing “Back in the U.S.S.R,” up to a surprise ending Shakespeare never repeated.

He rarely wrote about characters his audience might know personally, but “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (as he spelled it) is an exception to that rule.

The real king of Navarre became Henry IV and ruled France when the play was first performed; Berowne was based on the Duc de Biron, an adviser to that monarch. Dumaine and Longaville had parallels in French dukes de Mayenne and Longueville. Scholars think the play fell out of favor over time partly because audiences no longer knew these men.

Yet the script also seems like a trial run for stronger work. The bickering lovers and malapropistic constable (Russell Rowe) would reach full flower in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Sardonic Boyet (Jonathan Ray), who accompanies the women into the woods, would be wittier as Touchstone in “As You Like It,” where he’d encounter another quick-witted Rosalind.

Maybe Wilkinson trimmed subsidiary characters sharply because she sensed this. A blustering Spaniard (Christian Casper) still gets a few monologues, but his battles with the clownish Costard are gone. (Grant Watkins, who plays Costard, accompanies all singers skilfully on acoustic guitar.)

Wilkinson’s focus on the Navarre-Princess and Berowne-Rosaline pairings keeps the play’s core intact.

The four leads balance fluency and comic delivery; Buist, who’s making his Charlotte debut and exit (for now) in the same play, joyfully reels off complicated speeches. Berowne has nearly a quarter of the 2,800 lines in the uncut play, twice the number of anyone else, and Buist gives maximum pleasure in the abbreviated version.