LENOX -- "From women's eyes this doctrine I derive/ They sparkle still the right Promethean fire/They are the books, the arts, the academes/ That show, contain, and nourish all the world," says Lord Berowne in the fourth act of "Love's Labour's Lost," one of William Shakespeare's earliest comedies, which opens Saturday at Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse.
Berowne is speaking of the inspiration that comes from women, an ever-present feminist theme running through a play often dismissed by Shakespeare critics as one of the playwright's slighter efforts.
The plot has all of the trappings of breezy comedy full of romantic couplings and separations in which clowns and misfits, ladies and lords all come to terms with the complications that arise from falling in love.
It opens with four noblemen, including Berowne, taking an oath to separate themselves from the company of women for three years in order to focus on their intellectual studies. Of course, a princess and three ladies arrive at the kingdom, expecting the King of Navarre to welcome them with open arms. He doesn't, and they are forced to stay outside, four elegant women of means camping in tents.
While this battle of the sexes sounds frothy, director Lisa Wolpe said she and her cast have been mining its deeper themes, revealing its substantive core that past featherweight productions ignore.
"I think people take this superficial pass on it," Wolpe said in an interview at the theater. "Then they decide it is incomprehensible and don't want to do a careful reading, and as a result, resort to all kinds of shenanigans on stage to cover up for that lack of a close reading."
If Shakespeare & Company wanted a "Love's Labour's Lost" approached from a fresh perspective, they found the perfect director in Wolpe, who is the artistic director of the Los Angeles Woman's Shakespeare Company, an all-female company that she founded in 1993.
An actress who got her start at Shakespeare & Company, Wolpe has taken some liberties with the play.
To avoid a four hour-long show, Wolpe cut about a third of the play, which left her with the difficult decision of eliminating small roles that appear sporadically and have only one or two lines. She also changed the setting, from the 16th century to the 1940s.
"In the ‘40s, women were emerging to responsibility in the workplace," Wolpe said. "This was the time of female thinkers, of Dorothy Parker and Katherine Hepburn, who was one of our models for costumes."
The setting may have changed, but Shakespeare's fluid and witty dialogue has not. It is this play's emphasis on the dexterity of the English language that Wolpe said has excited her cast.
Parsing through the play's tricky dialogue is a challenge that Merry Conway said she relishes. The company's original clownmaster, Conway has dedicated her career to the study of movement on stage. With this production, she examines language as an extension of movement, and said she has found word-play to be just as acrobatic and comical as what a skilled clown does on stage.
"There are different ways of talking about everybody else's ways of talking, a critiquing and oneupmanship of language in this play," Conway said.
Examining language from the perspective of an expert in clowning has given Conway unique insights to offer the actors.
"I am a physical-based person, but I'm using word play as the gestures of language. I think of it very gesturally by looking at the structure of language," Conway said. "We are used to tweets and texts and emails and phone calls -- here it all goes back to direct human language. This play investigates how many ways can you talk about cupid. It is a wonderful opportunity for the actors."
Brooke Parks and Mark Bedard, who play the Princess of France and Berowne, respectively, said they loved having the opportunity.
Both regulars at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., Parks and Bedard are marking their Shakespeare & Company debuts with this production.
"It is really an exciting experience to witness Lisa's take on this play and to see her add all of these other elements that I didn't know were there, without negating the lighter, funnier elements of the play," Parks said.
Bedard, who has performed in comedies as diverse as "Waiting for Godot" and "Boeing-Boeing," said "the best comedies have huge elements of depth that make what is funny even funnier and what is sad even sadder.
"Other versions of this play emphasize the über comedy, but we aren't doing that here. We are actually looking at the text."
This approach has grounded the play in a sense of contemporary reality.
Parks said she is now hyper-aware of the intricacies of modern courtship, whenever she reads an email or sends a text, while Wolpe said her re-investigation of the play has revealed to her themes that feel ripped out of modern headlines.
"This play addresses race, class, age and religion," Wolpe said. "It addresses all of this pretty vociferously, pretty directly. It's a direct, full-on look at all of these things."
On stage ...
What: ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lisa Wolpe
Who: Shakespeare & Company
When: Now through Sept.1. Press opening — 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
How: (413) 637-3353; www.shakespeare.org; at the box office