FORT WORTH “Love’s Labour’s Won” is the title of a Shakespeare play known to have existed, because it was mentioned in other authors’ writing at the time, but scholars are unsure if it is a lost play or the subtitle of another known work. If the latter is the case, most think it would be “Much Ado About Nothing.” Both plays date from 1598, four years after his early comedy “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Plus, the title “Love’s Labour’s Won” would certainly fit the theme of “Much Ado,” in which love wins through the idea of its characters’ taking note of what’s going on around them — sometimes literally (“Nothing” would also have been pronounced “Noting,” sans the ‘h’).
It also serves as the title for this year’s Stolen Shakespeare Festival from Stolen Shakespeare Guild. Its “Love’s Labour’s Won” features “Much Ado,” which opened last weekend, and “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which opens Feb. 17. The two plays run in rotating repertory for three weekends, with the same cast, direction and design by SSG founders Jason (set) and Lauren Morgan (costume). As a bonus for parents, they have a children’s production called “If You Give a Shrew a Cookie,” based on “The Taming of the Shrew,” another early comedy that some have suggested could be the real “Love’s Labour’s Won.”
“Much Ado,” one of the Bard’s most-loved works and arguably his best straight-up comedy, has one big endgame: to make sure Benedick (Brad Stephens) and Beatrice (Felicia Bertch) realize they belong together. But it’s the satellite characters and their playful scheming that make “Much Ado” such a blast.
SSG’s productions have grown stronger as the budget and production values have grown over the years, which means talent that can perform Shakespeare without laboring at it.
This cast, led by Stephens and Bertch, does just that — especially Michael Johnson as Don Pedro, a patriarch in the play (along with Kim Titus as Leonato). Johnson, one of DFW’s finest Shakespeare talents, elevates his cast mates to his level.
Bertch initially plays Beatrice as more shrewish than usual, which makes Stephens’ Benedick work a little harder. The payoff is rewarding. There are a few other noteworthy performances: Jessica Taylor as Hero, whose heartbreak is palpable, and Robert Twaddell as Hero’s love Claudio, although he has occasional projection problems. As the villain Don John, Adam Kullman is a bit too mustache-twirling. But, this is a comedy.
The directors get a lot of things right with the ensemble in the communal plotting, eavesdropping, and “noting” for Benedick and Beatrice. But the physical comedy could be fine-tuned. It’s harder to make hiding behind and under objects as funny in the black box of the Sanders Theatre.
The sets and costumes of Padua are fetching. Lauren Morgan plays the male role of Balthasar, which comes in handy when that character sings — Morgan’s soprano is lovely. Music begins this production, too, with characters playing stringed instruments.
That bodes well for the songs in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” too.