We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The electricity in Shakespeare, said the author William Gass, comes from two apparent opposites: The actors are speaking about the most important things, and they’re playing with words as they’re doing it. And never more than in Love’s Labour’s Lost, a veritable lightning ball of snappy comebacks. Shenandoah Shakespeare Express rolls through this punfest with spirit (and without an intermission—great for those who have to get up in the morning). Yet the juice runs a little weakly through this production. Director Nick Hutchison doesn’t take at all seriously the very premise of Labour’s’ comedy, ultimately leaving his cast processing only words instead of ideas or affections.

Shenandoah has marked out its turf in the overcrowded field of Shakespeare specialists by providing elements of what classical musicians call “period” (true-to-their-time) performances. To this end, the company employs thrust staging (which seats the audience on three sides of the stage) and little to no set design; it also leaves the house lights on and uses relatively contemporary costumes, as an Elizabethan cast would have. For Labour’s, Kimberley G. Morris has made Shenandoah’s actors look as though they’d stepped straight out of the Kennedy Administration: gray flannel suits for King Ferdinand of Navarre (Tyler Woods) and his gentlemen, Oleg Cassini-type dresses and pillbox hats for the visiting Princess of France (Vanessa Mandeville Morosco) and her ladies.

Does this choice resonate with the play, a romantic farce about four guys who want to improve their minds but can’t keep their eyes from wandering? Nah. But it makes for a bit of fun, as does the cast’s penchant for breaking into doo-wop tunes at the drop of a couplet. And to be fair, Labour’s plot falls a few cards short of a full deck. It opens with Ferdinand and his lords Berowne (Kip Pierson), Dumaine (Jim Kropa), and Longaville (Paul Fidalgo) committing for some unfathomable reason to three years of monkish reading: no women, little food, and three hours of sleep nightly. Berowne, the most reluctant of the new academics, calls the regimen “out of season”—as in “Aren’t we all a little old for this, guys?”

Hutchison stages their pledge as a political photo-op, followed by a reading of the fine print, which reveals that women who come within a mile of the men will have their tongues cut out. But when the princess and her retinue—Rosaline (Erika Sheffer), Maria (Claire Christie), and Katherine (Jessica Drizd)—suddenly arrive in Navarre, tongues can’t stay in heads anyway. The two crews fall to an exchange of insults worthy of 8 Mile, and the zingers keep flying throughout Labour’s’ familiarly Shakespearian melange of fools, disguises, misdelivered letters, and mirrored subplots. “Sweet smoke of rhetoric!” cries the Spanish lord Don Armado (Frank Arrington) at one point, after the dairy maid Jaquenetta (also played by Sheffer) talks rings around him and then sashays away in pedal pushers with midriff bare—this being the early ’60s, remember, when bare midriffs actually meant something.

Arrington, in fact, steals the show, making over the dim Armado into a Marvin Gaye hipster sinuously tuned to his own music of love. Resplendent in red sash, double-breasted linen suit, and rings for most of his fingers, this Armado still isn’t above falling into a cobra pose of frustrated desire after Jaquenetta leaves him drooling. “Boy, I do love that country girl,” he swoons, making it sound like smooth jazz. Arrington holds Armado on the verge of transport (and camp) for two hours, and afterward you can’t imagine the part played any other way.

Otherwise, this Labour’s has mostly lost the play’s sexual center, its tension between earthy bent and abstract legislation. Sheffer’s Rosaline is the exception, a Joan Collins in training. She delivers her sarcasm with a bedroom voice, seducing as she’s destroying, and her great teasing exchange with Boyet (the George Hamilton-esque assistant to the princess, played with a suave sheer by Eric C. Bailey) suggests a shared past and maybe a clandestine future. But when she meets the eventual object of her affection, Pierson’s boyish Berowne, he’s no match for her. She eats his lunch the first time they meet, and ever after treats him like a pesky fly.

The rest of Shenandoah’s nobles prove efficient but bland, moving from first sight of the other sex to full infatuation without a flicker of drama or conviction. (The costumes contribute to the effect, dampening and blending the characters instead of outlining them.) Labour’s can fully succeed only if Ferdinand and his crew seem truly torn over breaking their new oaths—it sets up the full joke of their yielding to temptation, as well as the slightly more solemn considerations of authenticity vs. role and the necessary deprivations of discipline. Hutchison, though, merely notes these dynamics on his way to piling up mounds of verbal hijinks.

Problem is, Labour’s has a dense and not easily accessible script; it needs narrative tension and nuance to make sense. Perhaps too mindful of Shenandoah’s interest in replicating the original Shakespearean duration of two hours and change, Hutchison gets quick, declamatory readings out of his cast that leave us in the dust—a bizarre situation for a play with a subplot about academics whose language is too abstruse.

Though the company prides itself on interaction with its audiences (here mostly consisting of goo-goo eyes made with women in the front row), there was more laughter onstage than off on press night. After a particularly impenetrable scene of triple-punning pedantry, schoolteacher Holofernes (Fidalgo again) turned to the Elvis-imitating constable Dull (Bailey again) and said: “You haven’t spoke a word yet.” “Nor understood one,” replied Dull, triggering easily the biggest roar of the evening.

Shenandoah’s approach provides a lesson in the virtues and pitfalls of the period performance. The zeal to strip art to its essence can introduce its own obstacles. This Labour’s moves crisply, with a fresh-faced attitude and a nice attention to gesture. But as Berowne himself put it, “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear that hears it.” Translation: “Let us in on the joke.” CP