A bad night at the cinema is 10 times better than a bad night at the theater, but a great night at the theater is 10 times better than a great night at the cinema. Why? Theater is risky. At the cinema you're watching someone walk across a line painted on the ground. At a play you're watching them walk across a tightrope. When theater fails, it fails horrifically, but when it succeeds only religion and narcotics can match its capacity to transport the human mind so completely.
Like a bullfighting aficionado, a theatergoer will attend a play any chance she can get for the straightforward reason that tonight could be the one—that one particular night of that one particular production when an eerie, potent crackle whips through the room as something of fragile and momentary beauty is created.
There are so many flashes of this magic in John Sipe's sparkling production of Love's Labour's Lost that the theater should issue a strobe warning as the audience takes its seats. No traces can be found here of the notorious difficulty of the text. Instead, Shakespeare's most scholarly work plays as a bright, varied, and relentlessly hilarious piece of profound whimsy.
Sipe's skill is to create a unified, cohesive world out of the play's disparate characters. Academics and noblemen, rustics and clowns rue and celebrate their common romantic vulnerabilities with touching humanity, and the topsy-turvy distribution of wisdom and happiness throughout the dramatis personae is never obscured by slapstick (although we are given slapstick aplenty).
There's not a weak link in this production, but four actors stand out from the uniformly excellent company.
Playing King Ferdinand, Jonathan Visser, a leading light of last year's The Secret Rapture, again proves himself a deeply fascinating actor. Not so much a human beanpole as a grinning jaw atop a length of rope, Visser here demonstrates a prodigious comic ability. More than this, however, he brings an intellectual weight to his interpretation; almost wholly by stealth he fashions his nervous blinks and sheepish grins into a detailed, sympathetic character with a beautifully judged arc. He also manages to give one epic double-take towards the end of the play, the shock of which propels him—apparently naturally—across the entire length of the stage. Surely fewer than one Broadway actor in 20 could equal this feat.
Visser is ably assisted by Matthew Ventura playing his companion Berowne. Ventura has a gift that almost rivals Derek Jacobi's for unknotting especially convoluted passages of text and presenting them as totally clear, seemingly spontaneous thoughts, the essence of which can be mysteriously understood even if the vocabulary is alien. His "I, that have been love's whip…" speech is a master class of precision. Ventura benefits also from two of the most expressive eyebrows in contemporary theater, and a wicked, toothy leer of Pacino-like coarseness.
Carol Mayo Jenkins masterfully plays the scholar Holofernes as a tweedy, abstruse Hyacinth Bucket, occasionally dipping into a wonderful baritone of indignation as her dignity topples. Her owl-like countenance in the final act as she mournfully dances provides a moment of pure hilarity.
Lastly, Lauren Pennline as Maria once more illuminates an entire production from the confines of a frustratingly minor role. From her few fistfuls of text she creates a portrait of enchanting spikiness. Her jutting chin, slightly cruel mouth and playfully aristocratic manner give her an impudent coquettishness that radiates out to temper everything else on stage. An actress of almost unbelievable intensity, when Pennline flashes a supercilious glance across the stage one almost has to shield one's eyes from the power of her gaze. She is one of the most compelling, watchable performers I've ever witnessed, and we really need to see her in a major role before long.
Until then there is more than enough to delight in throughout this beautiful production, without question the University of Tennessee's most perfectly realized work in some time. I urge you to see it without delay.