Avenue Theatre

The Bard painted love’s changing surfaces, whether courtly, jealous, tempestuous, trusting, or doomed, with the accuracy, depth, and range Monet brought to haystacks and Rembrandt to himself. If love were to disappear from the planet, it could be reconstructed, warts and all, from just a few of Shakespeare’s plays.

But compelling as they may be, Shakespeare’s love scenes can’t be turned on like a spigot. The performances must persuade.

That seldom happens in the Avenue Theatre’s ironically titled The Little Loves of Shakespeare. “Little” indeed . . . Both well- and lesser-known love scenes are lifted from the context of some seven plays. And this 180-minute assemblage manages to grind down Shakespeare’s astonishing emotional range to the assembly-line dimensions of an interminably tedious community-theater audition.

The fact that you don’t have to pay royalties to Shakespeare is not reason enough to perform his work.

A troubadour (Cindy Mader) loosely holds the selections together. The Bard’s earthier moments–the Clown’s much-tested love for his dog Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Touchstone’s heavy-breathing ardor for Audrey in As You Like It, the Bawd’s attempt to capitalize on a virgin whore in Pericles–are contrasted with more refined sentiments such as can be found in the courtly badinage of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Rosalind’s witty banter in As You Like It, and the elegant, despairing monologues of the jailer’s daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen (whose authorship is disputed). On the whole the coarser kind predominates here–yet in the scene from Pericles, when the Bawd’s venal advice to a prospective prostitute runs up against the Governor’s sudden eruption of morality, you can see how cleverly Shakespeare plays the sacred and the profane against each other.

But even Shakespeare’s best love scenes can’t stand on their own. They grow out of changing characters, and in this context we can only guess at or try to recall their stories, especially since Little Loves intentionally features Shakespeare’s lesser-known work. This production tries to freeze the love scenes as they peak. Worse, it assumes that with no setup or warm-up these 14 actors–most of whom play at least two roles–can breathe as much life into their characters as if they knew their entire parts.

In these 24 scenes, directors Doug Binkley and Frank Alan Schneider merely change channels frequently–the production doesn’t do justice to the scenes or the plays. Sometimes it’s not even true to the text–the line is “What fools these mortals be!” not “lovers.” And one actress mispronounced “counterfeit” and “cicatrice.” Some of the scenes here aren’t about love at all: the suitors’ scene in The Taming of the Shrew really concerns dowries and settlements. And even if you count canine love, the Clown’s first monologue in Two Gentlemen doesn’t touch on his loyalty to his mischievous mutt.

Whatever love can be gleaned from these scenes gets no help from the wooden recitations. The lovers’ tangles that fuel A Midsummer Night’s Dream are tepid and automatic, unworthy even of Pyramus and Thisbe; the recognition scene that ends Pericles feels hollow as a drum; and there’s hardly a hint of humor in Touchstone’s dalliance with Audrey, a girl of remarkably reliable stupidity.

There are just a few scenes that don’t seem too long before the first minute is up. As the sprightly Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost and the beleaguered heroine in Two Kinsmen, Elizabeth Yeats goes beyond looking the part to acting it. Christine Andrews’s Bianca is an unpretentiously ordinary love object, grounded in the character’s abundant common sense. Anne von Herrmann suggests some of Rosalind’s mercurial resilience and all of Kate’s fury at her sister’s love triumphs.

Schneider’s ugly set design–wooden platforms, a backdrop of ivy runners looking like congealed seaweed, and a stark tree stump–all but spoils the make-believe before it begins. At least Dennis Carl’s costumes attempt to differentiate the characters. But most of the actors make the costuming irrelevant.

Shakespeare explored love the way his contemporaries did the New World. Happily, no one suffered from his explorations–in fact his readers have gained from them. But damn it, that’s all the more reason not to dabble in his discoveries.