Merely Players embraces the silliness of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

by | Aug 11, 2023 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

Take a theater company. Now, take away the theater – and all the expenses that go along with running a facility.

And now, take away the director, so that the actors run the show.

It’s not a new idea, says Rachel Kohler – in fact, she notes, it’s the way that theater companies tended to be organized in William Shakespeare’s day.

And it’s the blueprint for Merely Players, a new Corvallis-based traveling Shakespeare company that’s making the rounds with its debut production, “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” (The show stops at the lawn of the Lumos Wine Co. for a 6 p.m. performance Friday, Aug. 11 before heading out for performances at the Masonic Lodge in downtown Albany and, in September, for three shows at the Majestic Theatre; see below for details about performance dates and locations.)

“The idea of an actors’ cooperative company that doesn’t have a director, that’s super-appealing to me,” Kohler said in a recent interview as she recuperated from a broken ankle. (The ankle means she’ll be performing in a wheelchair during some of the company’s performances of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”) “I wanted to have that style of theater company for a really long time.”

But it took time for Kohler, who’s directed a number of Shakespeare productions during her seven years in Corvallis, to build relationships with the core members of Merely Players — and that familiarity was essential.

“Many of these actors have worked with each other many, many times,” Kohler said. “We finally felt like we were positioned to do this kind of work.”

The familiarity reduces the need for a director, she said. “We’ve all acted for long enough that we have a fairly innate sense of where one should stand on the stage. And, because we’re all friends, we can also watch other and say, ‘Actually, that’s not where you should be standing because I can’t see you at that angle.’”

Kohler and colleagues tried the no-director approach for a production of “The Winter’s Tale” in 2021. That led to the creation of the legal entity Merely Players LLC, with seven core members each serving as a shareholder.

“So it’s kind of like a modern version of Shakespeare’s shareholder system,” Kohler said.

It’s not a model that would work for all plays, but it’s well-suited to some of Shakespeare’s works, and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” jumped out at her as an ideal first production for Merely Players.

The play, she said, “is one of the more criminally underdone of Shakespeare’s comedies; people recognize the title because it’s an amazing title … but they couldn’t tell you the first thing about the plot.”

Which is fine, she said, “because the plot isn’t really what’s on display here. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ is primarily a celebration of language and writing and how much fun those things are.”

(For the record: the plot of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” involves the King of Navarre and his companions as they attempt to swear off the company of women for three years to focus on study and fasting. Complications ensue.)

In adapting the play, Kohler had to make sure the wordplay still made sense for modern audiences. She also combined some of the play’s characters and was ruthless about cutting parts that just didn’t seem as if they would play well. The final result clocks in at a brisk two hours, plus intermission.

In addition to what Kohler called the “silly frothy wordplay,” the company has been emphasizing physical humor – and is looking forward to interacting with audiences, in much the same way that theater companies in Shakespeare’s time would have interacted with theirs.

“The thing that really works about this style for Shakespeare and his contemporaries is that these plays were written with a great deal of audience interaction in mind,” she said. “And with a small minimally staged production like this, especially being presented in nontraditional theater spaces, your audience is right there. … The amount of audience interaction that you can find in that kind of setting is unparalleled.”

You may be asking – and I certainly did – how casting decisions are made in a company with no director. Here’s how it worked for this production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost:”

After the seven core members finished reading Kohler’s adaptation, each wrote down their top three choices in order. “It was a hope that after we did that, everyone would be able to get their first or second choice.”

No need to worry. Everyone got their first choice, she said, “because everyone knows what they’re good at playing and has an idea of what the others are good at playing, too.”

The cast for “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is filled out with guest performers from outside the Merely Players troupe – but, again, the guests are well-known faces to mid-valley theatergoers.

In addition to Kohler, the shareholders in Merely Players are John Carone, Sanaya Forbes, Chad Howard, Laurie Mason, Arlee Olson and Britt Urey, Guest performers in this production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” are Nancy Homan, Jeff Miller and Sarika Rao.

If You Go

What: “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” a production of Corvallis’ Merely Players.

When and where:

  • Friday, Aug. 11, 6 p.m., Lumos Wine Co. lawn, 24000 Cardwell Hill Drive outside Philomath.
  • Saturday, Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m., Albany Masonic Lodge, 431 W. First Ave., Albany.
  • Friday and Saturday, Sept. 15-16, 7:30 p.m., Majestic Theatre, 115 SW Second Ave., Corvallis.
  • Sunday, Sept. 17, 2:30 p.m., Majestic Theatre, 115 SW Second Ave., Corvallis.

How much: Tickets are $17 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. Click here to buy tickets.

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