Love’s Labour’s Lost; created and adapted by David Goldman, Victoria Rae Sook, and Dan Swern for Shake & Bake. Directed by Dan Swern, New York, New York, USA. December 15, 2018.
Reviewed by Justin B. Hopkins
Given how much I like both food and Shakespeare, I was caught between eager anticipation and mild apprehension. Too often, at least in my experience, dinner theatre has proved inspirational in neither of its performative capacities. Not so in the case of Shake and Bake’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Conceived by chef David Goldman, choreographer and actor Victoria Rae Sook, and director Dan Swern, this splendid experience featured a delicious eight-course tasting menu framed by a completely capable delivery of one of Shakespeare’s least commonly produced comedies.
Entering the warehouse in lower Manhattan’s meat-packing district, I admired the conversion of the space into a comfortable and welcoming hall, decorated around the central playing area with casual tapestries and mismatched couches. Cast members wearing different colored chef jackets filled water glasses and passed trays of smoked salmon and cream cheese on crackers, and mason jars filled with pickled green beans and carrots. Relishing the surprising subtlety of the appetizers, I was already impressed, given my memories of mediocre musicals punctuated by trips to heaping, carb-heavy, buffets.
Wisely, the script was just as carefully portioned and presented. Navarre’s four lords were cut to three—poor Dumaine—but the surviving trio compensated with immense energy and perfectly competent readings. Indeed, the nuanced cuisine was well-balanced by the broadly comedic acting, which was no less engaging for all the melodramatic exaggeration.
Most melodramatic of all was Charles Osborne’s apparently manic Don Adriano de Armado, who exploded through a side curtain, astonishing the nearby audience member into a shocked shriek. Moments later, Osborne was clutching, fondling, and then literally licking the same patron’s boots to illustrate his infatuation with Jacquanetta: “I do affect the very ground, which is base, where her shoe, which is baser, guided by her foot, which is basest, doth tread” (1.2.127-128). Lucky lady.
By that time, albeit amused, I was feeling ever more peckish. Thankfully, the arrival of the Princess and her two companions (no Catherine) was followed by a solid salad of balsamic-dressed greens and quinoa, served with a knowing wink, invoking the “wide fields” (2.1.94) in which the ladies were compelled to camp.
Still, I couldn’t say even that clever mirroring of nourishment and narrative quite satisfied my hunger, and as the backward baseball-capped Costard was rewarded with his “remuneration” (3.1.95)—a bag of Cheetos—and then his “guerdon” (3.1.127)—a much larger back of Cheetos—I laughed, but my stomach started to grumble.
Not for long, though, since the deer hunt turned into a shooting contest between lords and ladies, accompanied by an adaptation of the play’s concluding songs (“Cuckoo” [5.2.897] and “Tu-whit; tu-who”[5.2.915]) and, more importantly, hearty tins of Cheeto-dusted macaroni and cheese. I had some trouble following the action at this point, which may have had more to do with my focus on the food and less to do with the textual adjustments, but in any case, I didn’t mind.
During intermission, I chatted with and observed my neighbor patrons, who seemed just as pleased with the first half as I. The brisket tacos and vinegar slaw were a tad bland, but I’ve had far worse, and the ensuing scene of secretly surveilled sonnetry was hilarious. The highlight was Berowne reciting Sonnet 57—“Being your slave, what should I do but tend upon the hours and times of your desire?” (1-2)—to the “imagined” but very much presently-acted and increasingly aroused Rosaline. Her comically lascivious writhing on the rolling steel kitchen cart required the head chef to spray and wipe it down afterwards. His visible disgust prompted even more merriment.
I must admit my focus may have drifted again around this time—the liberal glasses of red and white wine had been supplemented along the way with shots of Jägermeister—but I distinctly remember continuing to admire and enjoy the efficient and enthusiastic presentation of the text. Since Sir Nathaniel, Holofernes, and Moth had all been wholly excised, the Nine Worthies were reduced to three and rendered by the King, Longaville, and Berowne. Their antics were brought to an appropriately abrupt halt by the news of the French King’s death, delivered soberly by the head chef, and properly bittering the sweet—just as had the earlier, exquisitely tart pink lemonade soda. The post-applause buttermilk panna cotta notwithstanding, the overall effect of the finale was not overwhelmingly saccharine.
Again, as someone who likes good Shakespeare and a good meal, I really liked Shake and Bake’s work. Sure, I can recall stronger, more intellectual readings of Love’s Labour’s Lost—but not many. This company may not have been inclined to capture the poetic complexity of the text, but their creative exuberance in both dramatic and culinary capacities sent me home with a sense of respect and pleasure. I know that as I use my Shake and Bake souvenir oven mitt in my own cooking, I will reflect fondly on the evening, and hope for more.
Company website: https://www.shakeandbaketheatre.com/
Audio description: https://soundcloud.com/justin-hopkins-42444021/shakeandbakeloveslabourslost