“What’s wonderful about this play is: it really should appeal to any lover out there.”
Vivienne Benesch was speaking with me as her production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was nearing its first performance at Folger Theatre.
“I was saying to the cast the other day: I said, ‘I absolutely hope that this is the perfect date play. But it’s also the perfect family, come-with-your-daughter, come-with-your-sons — because there’s something for everyone in it. It is the scholar’s play, but it is also the clown’s play, and absolutely the lover’s. It ranges that way.
“But I do hope that, if you’re on a date, at the end of it, you want to reach out and hold your date’s hand as you walk out.
“Production-wise, I think, for those who know the Folger Library, and know that reading room — I really hope they’ll get an extra kick out of seeing it repurposed in this way.”
I had begun our conversation by asking her to talk about how a visit to Folger Shakespeare Library had triggered her concept for the production.
“I have always loved this play since I got to act in it back in 1997 — so, twenty-two years ago. And I remember the idea of trying to find: what is the Academe that Navarre choses to study in?
“And when I came here, exactly a year ago, and got my first tour of the Folger Library, I walked into the reading room, and was so moved by it — literally, it was somewhere between one and three minutes later, I turned around and said to Janet [Alexander Griffin, Folger’s Artistic Producer,] ‘Well, this is the Academe. This is perfect!’ And I could see her eyes light up and go, like, ‘What a great idea!’
“I was also inspired because it has this beautiful deep green carpeting all over, and all this gorgeous dark wood, and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah: it can operate both as the reading room and the study hall Academe, but also transform, with a lift of the imagination, into the outdoor scenes in the field, and the hunt.’
“And so that’s sort of where the initial inspiration came from: being in that room, and feeling like I would spend three years studying here. And the more that I started to research the history of the Folger, this idea of Shakespeare not just being scholarly, but the idea of Shakespeare being a living art…
“The King’s — one of the King’s first lines is, ‘Rich in living arts’; that they will study that. And it just felt so appropriate.
“And then the setting — to choose to set it in the early 1930s, when the Folger was opening: I also loved that for the play because the play is so, so much about repartee, and language, and that 30’s style in the popular culture — film and theatre — of this great linguistic repartee; I felt that was a great world to set it in.
“As well as, coming out of the Depression, when people really wanted and needed escape in their cultural choices (but with this deep sense of wanting to make the world better, or needing to make the world better) — in the music; fiction; all of that — it fit perfectly.
“And then, of course, the play — what’s been so interesting — the play basically keeps on revealing itself to me: to prove that, if you actually try to separate love from scholarship, education, and the living arts, there is no such thing as the living arts without love. And that’s the story of the play: a group of boys who think that they can separate them, and are taught otherwise.”
So, Shakespeare’s play, first published in 1598, is now placed in 1930s Washington, DC? “It is, it is. That is where we have placed it. We have the idea that we are really inside the Folger Library. There’s the young diplomats who come, and the security guard, and the librarian, and the curator, and Armado being a Spanish visitor of the time — yes, we have set it that way.
“Though I have to say (and this is just true of me; I’m not particularly one for, like, heavy-handed concept Shakespeare) what’s been both challenging and great about this play is that there is way too much language to get too, too, too literal with the setting.”
That said, Benesch sees the era chosen as value-added: “Costumes, and music, and production, and the fact that it’s Spring in DC right now — I hope to bring a little ‘Spring Fling’ to the DC community.”
I wondered if Benesch had approached Folger to do Love’s Labor’s. “Janet, when people say, ‘Why did you choose Vivienne?’ jokes, ‘Well, when I was looking for a director for Love’s Labor’s Lost, I was interviewing people, and I called her,’ and my reaction, apparently immediately, was, like, ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost? I love that play!’ And she said, ‘She had sold me then and there,’ because that is not every director’s first response to this play.
“It is deceivingly challenging. But I have always loved its mix of heart and linguistic gymnastics. I’ve always loved — yes, it is quote unquote early Shakespeare, but in his exploration, he touches on so many, so many things. And we have had truly a delightfully challenging time working on it.
Love’s Labor’s Lost from Folger Theatre Company closes June 9, 2019. Details and tickets.
“The challenge is absolutely there. And I’ve been talking about — one of the biggest challenges has been finding the right buoyancy for the play. It is not — and perhaps this is a reflection of it being an early play for him — it is not a pure romance. It is not a pure comedy. It’s not exactly one of his problem plays, in the way Measure for Measure or Merchant is, at all.
“It sort of lives in its own category, in many ways. And I have found, if you go too broadly with the comedy, it doesn’t want to sit there for too, too long; and if you go too long into the sentiment and the heart and argument, it also doesn’t hold there. So I’ve been describing it as: we have to investigate the buoyancy of the play.”
Critics feel Benesch has succeeded. The headline of Nelson Pressley’s notice in The Washington Post was “Love’s Labor’s Lost is Tricky, but the Folger Makes it Winsome,” while Meaghan Hannan Davant’s five-star review for DCTheatreScene.com found the production “an unexpected delight showcasing the transformative power of a visionary director and a stunningly talented and committed cast.”
So, who did Benesch play in her previous foray into the play? “I played the Princess of France.”
Has Benesch ever directed a play in which she had previously performed? “I’m trying to think. No! I guess that’s really true; I haven’t.
“I have very fond, very, very fond memories of the production that I was in. I fell in love with the role and, therefore, the play from having investigated it from inside that perspective. But, as soon as I started working on this, I had a huge appreciation: as a director, your perspective has to be for the entire story, and from every character’s point of view. The challenges become much, much greater. You’re, like, ‘Oh. That’s because…’
“The Princess, actually, is such a beautiful role, but she’s only in four scenes, and there’s a beautiful, very clear arc. When you’re directing, again, at large, I was, like, ‘Ooh, those pedant scenes are challenging, and how do you go’ — again, what I was talking about before — ‘from one to the other and not feel like you’re shifting style of play when doing that?’
“But, I will also say that I have an incredible cast. I couldn’t be more excited about casting, and, if the adage that casting is ninety percent of a director’s job is true — which I’m not sure if I quite believe that, but, I think, it’s a high percentage — if you do that work well, you’re really set-up for success. And I feel very good about that part of the work already.”
This play is famous for a certain amount of wordplay that would have been easier to understand four centuries ago than it will be today. “We have cut. We have cut. I wouldn’t say that — well, yes, I might even say that I’ve cut a lot. I’ve, certainly, with those scenes where [the play’s language] is archaic, and rhythm and character can make up the difference, I have left it alone. Where it is archaic and just alienates us (or where I believe it alienates us), I have cut.
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“But some of the archaicness is the point, and so it is fun to see a really good actor wax poetic, and find seventy words for the moon,” Benesch laughed, “and we can enjoy that, even if we don’t know, don’t understand sixty percent of what he’s saying. As long as the characters around him do understand or, in many cases, obviously don’t — I mean, Shakespeare was very smart, and he put other characters who don’t understand any more than we, as audience, do, so you have a filter by which you have a sort of translator by which to say, ‘Oh, it’s okay that I don’t understand that.’
“And I hope that kids will appreciate and enjoy it; they might enjoy the arcane language more than anyone else, in many ways,” Benesch laughed.
So, with cuts, the production will run, “I would say two-and-a-half hours, with intermission. I would like to get it down even more from that, and I’ve been snipping away a little, as we go. I’m sure, in previews, I will continue to do that and things will tighten up. But I also have a lot of great comedians who, I imagine, as soon as we get an audience out there will also have some fun, and we will add a little time there, hopefully for great reason.”
The facsimile of an Elizabethan theatre that is the Folger performance space presents its own challenges. “In terms of the Folger space, so: yes, this is my first time here, and those columns are what they are. I have to say, though — I will start by saying, I am absolutely in love with the space itself. I have never gotten to either perform or direct Shakespeare in a space where the natural voice can carry the way it does in this space. So that is super-exciting: to feel the intimacy that you do in this space.
“Then, I had the great blessing of working with a set designer who I’ve worked with over fifteen times at this point: Lee Savage is very familiar to DC audiences, but this is his first time at the Folger also. So, when I called him up, and I said, ‘I really want you to do this, and I have a very specific idea for it’ — what he has been able to do in recreating a cross-section of the reading room is use the space and its challenges incredibly smartly. So, maybe this is a lucky first time for me, but I have not felt the quote unquote challenges of the space; I’ve actually really enjoyed fitting our show into it.”
When I brought up the space, Benesch expected me to go somewhere else: “You know, I thought you were heading to the fifth act, which, of course, I will talk about: the gorgeous fifth act (which really does feel like the rug is getting pulled out and you’re suddenly in another play) is a really exciting challenge.
“What has been, again, revealing itself to me is that the play’s all about what our word means, and words mean — and with our word, how good is our word? How authentic is our word, and how we use words as an expression of authenticity? And what the fifth act allows us, in its non-resolution, in fact, is it stresses that our word must live up to our actions, and our actions to our words and, really, time is one of the only ways in which that is possible.
“So, you have a play, in fact, four-and-a-half acts of which — well, no, all of which — takes place over a weekend. These lovers (whether or not they’ve known each other, seen each other previously), they meet, they fall in love, they forswear — the gentlemen forswear themselves; the women take them on this (as the play says) sort of mock-for-mock, is how the women treat the men and then…
“I know; it’s hard to talk about this without giving anything away. But, it’s, like, in this whirlwind of a weekend, the play, then, really beautifully emphasizes that love’s labor’s can certainly be lost in thirty-six hours; they certainly can’t be won in thirty-six hours.” Benesch laughed. “I know! I just coined that right now. Does that make sense?
“You know, I, of all people, am an absolute believer in love at first sight. I believe in that, actually. But then, I believe that love at first sight does not make for a life of love. We have to work for that, and be our authentic selves.”
Returning to her having previously acted in this play, I asked Benesch (who is Producing Artistic Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC) whether she is a company leader who acts as well as directs, or if her acting days are now over.
“Well, while I was at Chautauqua [Theater Company and Conservatory,] where I was for twelve seasons, I was an Artistic Director who acted; very much, I would act and direct and do that. Since coming to North Carolina, where I’m just finishing my third season, I have not acted at all yet. In fact, I have not acted now — it is going to be six years since I have acted. And that feels very strange to admit, because I absolutely do hope that acting is in my future again.
“I miss it, but I do not miss the career of it. Someone asked me a similar question the other day, and I said, ‘With directing of late, the glass is half full, and when I’m acting, the glass is half empty, in some ways.’
“It’s that I’m always craving a larger collaboration; that is where I’m happiest. And that has been in directing — and now producing, very much, as well. The alchemy of putting teams together, and collaboration — that has been really, really satisfying. But, yes, do I hope to act again? Absolutely. And who knows when the right project will come along to do that again?”