Falling in love with Shakespeare on Zoom


Image courtesy of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ take on Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is showing this Thursday through Monday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m.

By Ananya Pathapadu, Staff Writer

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, you might be looking for a good romantic comedy to watch. Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks is bringing you a modern take on Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” this week.

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks provides free public Shakespeare performances in Pittsburgh’s parks. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has been doing virtual shows, and “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” directed by Irene Alby, teaching assistant professor of acting and directing at West Virginia University, and Cornel Gabara, associate professor of acting at WVU, is not the company’s first virtual show.

Love’s Labour’s Lost” tells the story of the King of Navarre and his men, who take an oath to avoid women and relationships. When the Princess of France arrives with her women to make a deal with the kingdom, the men must face their oath and the love they feel for the women.

Alby and Gabara’s take on “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is showing this Thursday through next Monday at 7 p.m. for $17 a ticket. The directors’ take on the play involves gender-bending and non-traditional casting, with actors playing characters that in other castings would be done by an actor of a different age, gender or race.

“We broke through boundaries of age, race, gender, sexuality. We just wanted to allow anyone to play anything,” Alby said. “To kind of say, okay this character would traditionally be played by a 20-year-old girl, but what if we give to a 40-year-old man, or an older woman? This was the approach that we took.”

Alby and Gabara both said they felt that non-traditional casting was the right choice. Given the roots of Shakespearean theater being filled with all male casts, Gabara said he saw little reason to fit characters into two boxes of male and female.

“During Shakespeare’s time, we cannot forget, the actors were all men. Every part was played by men, so just by starting at the root of what theater was and meant for Elizabethan time, all these boundaries can be totally broken. Ultimately theater is a convention,” Gabara said. “We, in the 20th century and 21st century, are conditioned to think that men should play men and women should play women, but I don’t think It’s necessary.”

Not only is the casting contemporary, but Alby explained that they have modified the original script for modern audiences. She said she thought that in the same way Shakespeare wrote for his time, directors today can direct to fit the time they live in.

“It’s very contemporary, even though it’s Shakespeare. People think Shakespeare has to be set in Elizabethan England, but Shakespeare was writing for the time he lived in, just as we are doing it now for the people today,” Alby said. “So, we haven’t done it in a historical way, we’ve done it in a contemporary way.”

The play has a cast of eight members who each have more than one role. Jeffrey Chips, artistic director of Steel City Shakespeare Center, who plays Princess of France and Sir Nathaniel, said he finds that playing two completely different characters helps him tell the story to the audience. 

“I live for this. Creating characters with distinctly different characteristics is one of the best ways to tell a clear story,” Chips said. “In this play, I get to play a young princess and an old pastor. It doesn’t get much more different than that,” 

According to the directors, producing the show in a virtual setting presented a difficult set of circumstances to the company. Gabara explained that to allow the audience to have a more seamless experience, a lot of behind the scenes work was needed to coordinate the cast members and settings on Zoom.

“In order to unify the Zoom individual frames, through the work of our set and costume designer Lisa Leibering, we are trying to create a unified background,” Gabara said. “There are all these technical things that need to be overcome like trying to match the lighting, angle of the camera. You can imagine it’s not easy, it’s even more difficult than in film.”

Along with the challenges brought on by a virtual production, Gabara found that there are advantages as well. Because cast members do not have to meet and rehearse in Pittsburgh, this show was able to have cast members from Pittsburgh, West Virginia, South Carolina and Colorado who are all performing from the safety of their home. 

“The good thing about Zoom is that we actually can put people together,” Gabara said. “That happened all at one time, different time zones, different geographical locations, but all united by one desire to do theater, to continue to do theater and be artists and fulfill our function as artists in this tough time.” 

Chips said in his view, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks has brought together artists from across the country, and will bring theater to audiences whether it’s in a park or on a virtual platform. 

“If the last 11 months has taught me anything — and it has taught me many things — it’s that it’ll take a lot more than a global pandemic to keep me from making theater,” Chips said.