note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Vincentio, Duke of Vienna … Allyn Burrows
Angelo, the Deputy … Ken Cheeseman
Escalius, an ancient lord … David Gullette
Friar Peter … Michael F. Walker
Lucio, a fantastic … John Kuntz
Mistress Overdone, a bawd … Paula Plum
Pompey, a clown and servant to Mistress Overdone … Michael F. Walker
Provost … Paula Plum
Claudio, a young gentleman … Doug Lockwood
Juliet, beloved of Claudio … Jennifer Lafleur
Isabella, sister of Claudio … Paula Langton
Francisca, a nun … Paula Plum
Elbow, a simple constable … Doug Lockwood
Froth, a foolish gentleman … John Kuntz
Mariana, formerly betrothed to Angelo … Jennifer Lafleur
Abhorson, an executioner … David Gullette
Barnardine, a dissolute prisoner … Ken Cheeseman
Ensemble … Kelly Cook; Eric Gould; Carly Helsaple; Gail Markowitch; Maureen Regan
Understudies … Julia Mechsen; Deb Mechsen
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE is worth attending, both for this rarely-performed play and for this still-evolving company. Like its companion ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, MEASURE FOR MEASURE is one of Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies --- whatever was gnawing at the Bard at the time made him wade into waters too dark for out-and-out comedy and, once in over his head, to scramble back to sunnier shallows. MEASURE FOR MEASURE is the better of the two: Vincentio, the Duke of a morally corrupt Vienna, turns over the reins to his deputy Angelo, a reputed paragon of virtue, and supposedly departs the city but, instead, dons a friar’s robe to observe the goings-on, incognito. As expected, Angelo begins a city-wide purge and condemns to death one Claudio, a young lord who has impregnated his beloved before legally wedding her. Claudio sends for his sister Isabella, about to take the veil, to plead his case; she does so with such eloquence that Angelo declares that if Isabella will give herself to him he will spare her brother’s life. Isabella refuses and is shocked when Claudio begs her to reconsider. The two Angelo-Isabella interviews and the brother-sister confrontation are powerful debates on life and death, chastity and lust, but then the Bard goes mechanical in his plotting, Angelo retires for a long spell, and the disguised Duke slowly sets things right behind everyone’s back. (Both comedies use the era’s bed-trick where one woman is substituted for another; a gimmick that assumes all women are alike in the dark and men are too stupid not to notice.) By the time the trumped-up happy ending occurs, MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a different play altogether: a tragedy has given way to a comedy-melodrama.
How can a director find a unified whole, here? The answer lies in the actors playing Angelo and the Duke and in the supporting cast. The latter must suggest the city’s teeming rot --- Angelo needs something to condemn --- and Angelo’s fascist grip must always be felt whenever he has vacated the premises; in turn his ruthless campaign must sting the Duke to action, stealthily, at first, and then in a blaze of authority. Once the boundaries of Heaven and Hell have been determined, Isabella and Claudio, the two innocents, can wander in and let the beauty of their music guide them through their characterizations. For the Actors’ production, staged in the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center, director Robert Walsh trots out some punk-decadence backed by overly loud synthesized music and Ken Cheeseman contributes a haunted, neurotic Angelo. Angelo must appear as saintly as Isabella, the difference being he is an Ape trying to be an Angel whereas she is a novice towards sensuality, innuendo and compromise. Mr. Cheeseman, tall and gangly, tends to amble about --- some fondling aside, his second interview with Isabella reeks not of wolf-and-lamb --- and when he declaims, the results are sibilant-heavy but when Mr. Cheeseman doubles as Barnardine, his body focuses, his voice deepens into a rich bass-baritone, and a prairie Lincoln briefly stands before you (ah, if only he could reverse his characterizations!). Paired against this Angelo, Allyn Burrows is content to stroll through the role of the Duke; his soft, effortless stroking of his lines, a pleasure at first, soon grows monotonous, and his Duke takes all too readily to clerical garb when he, too, should be chafing over Isabella’s snowy goodness; after all, the Duke does claim her, at the end. (There’s Something About Isabella….) Doug Lockwood tends to bleat in declamation but is effective as Claudio, a kid- rather than an older-brother to Paula Langton’s fascinating sister. Isabella could so easily fall into a cold, smug trap of her own making --- a hysterical virgin wielding a fiery sword --- Ms. Langton plays her as shy and tremulous but not blind to life’s wrinkles; she has seen enough of the world around her and has deliberately chosen to remain unworldly. Some might say that the Messrs. Cheeseman and Burrows’ solemnity have forced Ms. Langton to fidget and fly like a sparrow between the slabs of Stonehenge, but hers is an interpretation that keeps blood rather than ice flowing through Isabella’s veins, and Ms. Langton’s readings are fresh and spontaneous, seemingly made up as she goes along but with color and shape.
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project, in this, its second offering, has begun to blend into an ensemble. Its RICHARD III was a free-for-all; now, with some additions and subtractions, the division of power has been better orchestrated. Whenever I see Shakespeare staged in any period but his own, I assume the director either knows the Bard inside-out and can afford to take risks or the director and/or the actors are not classically trained and have little choice but to modernize in order to get by. As I have scribbled before, not all of the company’s actors are Shakespeareans --- David Gullette, new to me, in the minor role of Escalius has the correct voice and quiet authority that grabs the focus whenever he appears --- as with Mr. Cheeseman, John Kuntz and Paula Plum are more memorable here in walk-ons than in their main characters: Mr. Kuntz makes a very funny dum-dum out of Froth whereas his Lucio is aching to turn nasty in the familiar Kuntz manner, and Ms. Plum’s fleeting Francisca captures the woman’s high-strung chastity that foreshadows Isabella’s future should she complete her vows; as Mariana, Jennifer Lafleur is a lovely, and lovely-sounding, throwback to the lost art of the Ingénue.
Mr. Walsh stages the play in the round and has set it in modern dress but not necessarily in modern times --- there isn’t a cell phone in sight --- and he makes much ado of the Center’s staircase that curves to one side of the room. There are moments when the actors don’t have enough lines to get them up and off in time, but Mr. Walsh twice strikes gold: the Isabella-Claudio confrontation takes place halfway up the stairs as if Claudio is already on his way to heaven, and when Isabella pleads her case to the Duke, she starts on the Center’s stage, a nobody separated from the others by a vastness of space between them, and gradually comes forward to boldly point out her nemesis in close-up. Overall, the production is traditional enough for purists; hopefully the company’s final offering of the season, JULIUS CAESAR, will be even better.