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Was Shakespeare a feminist?
Four hundred years after the playwright’s death – and in the shadow of third-wave feminism – historians, academics and assorted learned minds are debating that very possibility. In a nutshell, on the “pro” side is the playwright’s retinue of fully realized female characters who operate mainly on their own volition; on the “con” side, the reality that, in the end, these characters generally die, get married off, and/or succumb to the other constraints of 16th-century patriarchy.
Still, among the works most often cited as revealing Shakespeare’s feminist leanings, Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of the Bard’s early comedies, generally leads the pack. The action is entirely centered on the romantic battle between the sexes: the young King of Navarre and his inconstant sidekicks Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine (who are all reluctantly under the sway of the King’s newly announced celibacy edict), versus the Princess of France and her sharp-witted ladies Rosaline, Maria and Katharine. Upon this battlefield, the female characters appear strong, sophisticated and centered; the men are weak-willed, flighty and immature. This being a Shakespearean comedy and all, you might assume the play would nonetheless conclude with the women forgiving their goofball suitors and heading down the aisle. But here things get freaky. Rather than give in, when the proposals inevitably arrive, the women flatly refuse. Instead, they set strict penances for each suitor to perform for a year, and then they head back to France. If the guys get their act together during that time, they are told, the Princess and her ladies will consider marriage; if not, “let our hands part, neither entitled in the other’s heart.”
Whether or not you find this a convincing argument in support of Shakespeare’s feminism, the plot does provide the framework for amusing characterizations and the Bard’s typical comedic dialogue: fast-paced, erudite and laced with puns and double-entendres. Happily, the engaging cast in the production now at Rubber City Theatre works it for all it is worth, offering up an exuberant performance filled with laughter, good cheer and even a moving musical finale (an ensemble rendition of Sara Bareilles’ “Many the Miles”) that left much of the audience applauding wildly while blinking back tears.
That the young, but not unseasoned, 13-member cast could wring so much enthusiasm out of a play performed in what is essentially an 80-some seat black-box theater tucked into the upper reaches of a shabby former factory in one of Akron’s earliest industrial areas is a testament both to their talent and to the material they had to work with.
Thanks to the Bard’s clever wordplay, every one of the 18 characters (several performers handle two roles) gets at least a few laugh lines – even Dull, the phlegmatic country constable (played by a toothpick-chomping Kayla Lehman). Dull’s turn came with a quick comeback to the stuffed shirt Holofernes (Zach Palumbo), who – after a rambling, long-winded and esoteric speech – notes that the blank-faced Dull “hast spoken no word all this while.” “Nor understood none neither, sir,” Dull replies in perfect deadpan, possibly echoing the thoughts of some in the audience.
Other characters get to say plenty of funny stuff. For instance, in the role of Berowne (one of the king’s companions), actor Alex Funk is transfixing as he loses himself in the nuances of his long speeches, clearly expressing with his face and body what the Bard’s words might not always make clear to the contemporary ear.
In fact, physicality – and great timing – are strong suits among this cast, performing under the direction of Kelly Elliott. Would-be lover Longaville (played by a lithe Russell Aguirre) literally pirouettes with joy whilst composing a letter to his lady; then his fellow suitor Dumaine (an acrobatic Jack Douglas Riter) surpasses him by cartwheeling across the stage! And the moment when the four men admit to one another that they each have violated their vows of celibacy is tremendous fun, staged with the precision of a sword fight and performed with the giddiness of a preteen slumber party. (“Young blood doth not obey an old decree,” Berowne observes. Even in Shakespeare’s day, it would seem: Boys will be boys.)
Other memorable performances come from Scott Keary Crim as Don Adriano de Armado, a flighty Spaniard with the hots for country lass Jaquenetta (played, Lolita-like, by a lollipop-sucking Jane Plishka); Chelsea Jordan Cannon as outspoken, no-nonsense Rosaline, Berowne’s prickly love interest; and Joseph Soriano, as the flamboyant King of Navarre.
And as Costard, the country bumpkin who starts it all when he gets caught canoodling with Jaquenetta, Sam Ost is a scene stealer, making the most of every double entendre and bon mot that the Bard provides. In a flannel shirt and ball cap, the strawberry-blond Ost gives us a guy who is both sleazy and strangely endearing: an Elizabethan Roland Schitt, if you will.
Much like the contemporary pop song that wraps up the show, the costuming by Kelsey Tomlinson is nontraditional but perfectly apropos. While both sexes wear modern garb, the men are done up in gaudy colors and eye-popping patterns, while the women are sheathed in stylish, sophisticated black and white.
Feminist or not, Shakespeare certainly would have appreciated the meaning.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Through March 22 at Rubber City Theatre
243 Furnace St., Akron, 866-811-4111