The Staunton, VA-based Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, whose frisky performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor on Nov. 13 earned a hearty standing ovation from N.C. State University Center Stage patrons, saved the best for last. On Nov. 14, this terrific traveling troupe, under the inspired direction of Nick Hutchison and assistant director Joyce Peifer and amusingly attired by costumer Kimberley G. Morris, created a vivacious modern-dress version of Love's Labour's Lost (1594-95) that was frequently interrupted by lengthy bursts of applause.
As usual, the SSE's no-frills productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and especially Love's Labour's Lost emphasized the actor's craft and the power and beauty of Elizabethan dramatist William Shakespeare's language over high-tech special effects. Moreover, they admirably succeeded in communicating every comic nuance of plot and character to a mostly student audience weaned on television sitcoms.
Performed in approximately two hours (without intermission) on a thrust stage, with a minimum of scenery, with the lights on, and with the players regularly interacting with the audience, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Love's Labour's Lost recaptured the zaniness and the irrepressible high spirits of Shakespeare's original productions of these classic romantic comedies.
Guest director Nick Hutchison, who previously staged shows for the London Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company, demonstrates a genius for extracting every laugh from the script and sets a brisk pace for his mostly young and gifted cast of up-and-coming Shakespearean actors and actresses. The employment of "Wonderful World" and other songs by Sam Cooke and his contemporaries as background music for certain scenes is a brilliant touch.
Tyler Woods is delightful as the handsome young King of Navarre, a would-be scholar who induces three young lords (Paul Fidalgo, Jim Kropa, and Kip Pierson) to commit to three years of cloistered study during which they must avoid all contact with women. But before the ink has dried on this ill-advised commitment to scholarship and celibacy, the mettle of this young and foolish quartet is sorely tested by the long-scheduled arrival of the beautiful Princess of France (Vanessa Mandeville Morosco) and her three of her loveliest ladies-in-waiting (Claire Christie, Jessica Drizd, and Erika Sheffer).
Actor/guitarist Paul Fidalgo as Longaville, Jim Kropa as Dumaine, and Kip Pierson as Berowne all cut fine figures as impetuous and lusty youths who foreswear their oaths at the first sign of a pretty face. Vanessa Mandeville Morosco was an utterly charming Princess; and Claire Christie as Maria, Jessica Drizd as Katherine, and Erika Sheffer as Rosalind all made the most of their moments in the spotlight.
Frank Arrington was again low key but very, very funny as the fantastical Spaniard Don Armado; Joann Sacco was good as his hyperactive page, Moth; Eric C. Bailey doubled delightfully as the Princess' snooty major domo Boyet and the hilarious constable Dull; and Erika Sheffer was a hoot as the voluptuous dairymaid Jaquenetta, a Daisy Mae for the ages.
Paul Fidalgo was a scream as the insufferably stuffy Holofernes; and Kevin Hauver was highly amusing as the befuddled illiterate rustic Costard, who proved an utter disaster as a go-between when his misdelivery of two letters causes much of the play's merriment.
A frequent fixture of the NCSU Center Stage series, the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express once again delivered the goods, making two of the immortal Bard's comic masterpieces not only accessible, but royally entertaining for a 21st century audience. A good time was had by all.