Celebrating its 21st season, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival is in full regalia at Kingsmen Park in Thousands Oaks. This summer, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, Cal Lutheran’s professional theater company, plays host to four noblemen who make a frustrating pact, and a ruler with unfortunate taste in friends. The productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Julius Caesar are just parts of the programming that the Kingsmen have in store. The debut of Love’s Labour’s Lost kicked off a summer of Shakespeare that also includes camps, apprenticeships, educational outreach programs for area schools, staged readings, showcases and more. 

Judging from the ebullient production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Kingsmen stay true to the Bard. Shakespeare’s comedy crackles with levity, while the tragedy of Julius Caesar is just as cautionary a tale now as it was when it first hit the stage more than 400 years ago. The Kingsmen remind us that Shakespeare still has the power to spark discussion and challenge our points of view. His work speaks truth to power and remains relevant, even after all this time. One of the most important Shakespearean traditions that the Kingsmen continue is making great art accessible: Tickets start at $20, and kids under 18 attend free. Shakespeare may have been commissioned by royalty, but he played for the people. Looking out across the lawn at an audience of all ages, listening and laughing together, makes one think that this is what Shakespeare is all about.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is directed by Kevin P. Kern, a festival favorite. The plot revolves around a group of friends who swear off women in order to focus on their studies. In walks the Princess of France and her entourage, and the men regret their pact even before the ink dries. Hilarity ensues in the form of flirtations, miscommunications, a play within a play, fight scenes and, for good measure, dancing Muscovites. Kern set the play in pre-World War I Europe because, as he explains, the time period echoes the play’s theme of “dreams deferred.” Just as people had to put off their plans until after the war, so too do Shakespeare’s lovers have to wait to be together.

The production is a delight, with a cast that is a joy to watch. Stand-outs include Louis Jerry Kernion as Costard, Jason D. Rennie as Don Adriano de Armado, Todd Carlton Lanker as Berowne, and Samantha Eggers as the Princess. Kern’s direction is energetic and light, and shows a deep love and understanding of the material. The expert crew includes stage manager Kelsey York, set designer Brian Reed, lighting designer Leigh Allen, composer Christopher Hoag, costume designer Howard Schmitt, fight choreographer Brett Elliott and choreographer Jeff Wallach.

Trisha Miller as Cassius and Todd Lanker as Brutus in Julius Caesar, with Brett Elliot (Marc Antony) and Gary Best (Caesar) in the background. Photo by Brian Stethem

Julius Caesar will soon take the stage with the entire company pulling together to honor their beloved director John Slade, who passed away suddenly last week. Working through their grief, Michael Arndt, Kingsmen’s artistic director, says, “We will continue, and do the production in the manner and spirit John wanted.” Slade set the play in modern Rome, but Julius Caesar is not meant to be any current politician. “We have the sense that it’s about today,” but that’s the power of Shakespeare. “His stories are the stories of humanity. We see ourselves,” explains Arndt. In love or loss, Shakespeare speaks for us when we can’t find the words. The enduring beauty of Shakespeare is that he embraces everything it means to be human.

Love’s Labour’s Lost plays through July 16. Julius Caesar runs July 21-Aug. 4. Both productions take place at Kingsmen Park, California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For schedule of festival events and more information, call 493-3452 or visit www.kingsmenshakespeare.org.