I hope this isn’t the second Jager shot talking, which I, along with the rest of the audience was compelled to hold aloft and then swallow down during a drinking contest. (Or the light and crisp pinot grigio that arrived after the canapes but just before the princess of France arrived with her ladies at the Court of Navarre. Or the Cheeto-dusted Mac n’ Cheese.) But Shake & Bake Theatre Company’s new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a pure and unadulterated delight.
Skepticism at such project is tempting, and probably deserved. The idea behind Shake & Bake Theatre is that, as they say, Good Theatre Must Be Consumed.
It combines an eight course meal, with wine pairings and a compact and breezy Shakespearean comedy. Visions come of one of those restaurants with opera-singing waiters who insist diners put down the minestrone so they can belt out "Nessun Dorma" again, or something from Medieval Times, where audience members are forced to drink from oversized goblets and tear into dry mutton to add a dash of Elizabethan authenticity, the play a mere sidelight to the “experience.”
But Shake & Bake manages to produce a near perfectly turned Love’s Labour’s Lost, one worthy of any of any of New York’s stages.
Shake & Bake currently occupy a small industrial space across the street from the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District. The floors are concrete, the walls painted with scenes from the ladies' encampment outside the castle walls, the audience seated on couches in the round.
It is the kind of setting that can magnify mistakes and false moves from the actors, but under the direction of Dan Swern, a New Jersey-based director who aims to bring new voices on to the stage and the theater into new places, there is scarcely a clunky note over the course of two hours.
The theater-in-the-round setting enables audience members to check their own reactions against the crowd, and rarely have I seen an audience more engaged or enthralled with Shakespeare.
When at one point Longaville, played by Oge Agulue, sat on the couch next to me with a bowl of popcorn in order to watch the verbal duel between Berowne (Matthew Goodrich) and the King (Darren Ritchie) he seemed quite like the rest of us: settling in to panic-eat, rapt at the high-wire act unfolding a few inches away.
That the actors are so close isn’t the only way in which the degree of difficulty in pulling off this kind of play is heightened. Here the Court of Navarre is a restaurant kitchen.
Both the King’s men and the princess’ ladies are service workers, clad in the tight black pants and ghastly bright-colored tops familiar to anyone who has dined in the restaurant of a mid-tier hotel chain. They flirt, they fight, they make silly jokes, they snort coke and dance and drink and dance and sing and make music using serving tongs as castanets.
In the midst of all of this, they serve dinner to the couple of dozen or so people watching the play. It’s an almost unimaginable endurance test, one that continues through the intermission, as the cast serves tacos to the diners, a brisket delivered thanks to the princess’ deer-hunting party.
It is tempting to imagine the production making some kind of profound statement on the nature of restaurant work and the theater. The two after all work much of the time in combination, with stage actors making ends meet by working in the service industry between gigs. Restaurants, especially at the upper end of the scale, serve as a kind of performance.
Even if you don't subscribe to the comparative-lit analysis, Shake & Bake’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is as easy and breezy a production of Shakespeare as can be found, so much so that it may confuse people not familiar with the play. But this production is such a delight, so joyous and madcap and energetic and fun that such thoughts can thankfully shoved aside in favor of just giving in to the thrill ride.
Which is not to say that Shake and Bake isn’t doing something important here, showing how producers can attract young people to the theatre. The night I attended I doubt more than three-quarters of the audience had much living memory of Jimmy Carter, or had much of an idea that a night at the theater could be so satisfying and so captivating.
It is a performance that will be remembered long after the liquor and the wine and the vanilla panna cotta with brown butter crumble have worn off.
Love's Labours Lost is at 94 Gansevoort Street, NYC, booking through January 5.