Impact ratchets up vice, vitality in Measure for Measure
three stars Well measured
By all counts, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a comedy — if you measure comedy not in the Will Ferrell sense but by the more classical definition that has all the major cast members alive at the end of the play.
Measure for Measure, which would have won the “Most Problematic Play of 1604” trophy had such an award existed, has always been an uncomfortable comedy. There’s really only one expressly funny character (Lucio, described in the text as a “fantastic,” which could also mean slacker, con-man, troublemaker), and the bulk of the play is twisted into moralistic knots.
Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, the group that works diligently to keep younger generations interested in live theater, makes a Shakespearean detour every season, and the results are always interesting.
Director Melissa Hillman’s Measure for Measure, now at LaVal’s Subterranean Theatre, makes some valiant attempts to loosen some of Shakespeare’s knots.
First, the play has been effectively trimmed (no constable Elbow or foolish Froth) to two acts and two-plus hours. Second, and most important, the notion of comedy — except for Jeremy Forbing’s spirited take on Lucio and Stacz Sadowski’s Barnardine, a condemned prisoner perpetually too drunk to hang — the notion of comedy is effectively banished.
This is, at heart, a serious play about faith, narrow-mindedness, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Nothing particularly comical about any of those issues, especially when a man’s life, a leader’s overweening power and a nun’s virtue are on the line.
The three central performances in Hillman’s production are rock solid.
Ted Barker is Duke Vincentio of Vienna, who pretends to go away and then disguises himself as a priest to take the true measure of his sin-infested city, which is depicted in images of red, white and chain link in William McBride’s set.
The Duke’s temporary replacement is Angelo, a staunch military man unwilling to deviate from the letter of the law. As played by Cole Alexander Smith, Angelo is a pill-popping moralist whose first brush with temptation turns him into a monster.
That temptation comes in the form of Isabella, a novice nun whose brother (Daniel Duque-Estrada) is to be executed for impregnating his girlfriend (Dana Lau). As Isabella, Marissa Keltie is not what you’d expect. This is an extremist nun with a fear of sex we — and probably she — never quite understand. Hardly shy or retiring, she’s as single-minded about chastity as Angelo is about law, so it makes sense when the two of them clash.
Angelo, flush with power and lust for the young nun, is willing to make a deal: He’ll save the brother if the sister will relinquish her virgin body and sleep with him. “My false overweighs your true,” he tells her when she threatens to expose his horrible behavior.
Of course the disguised Duke gets wind of all this but takes his sweet time putting everything right. The painfully extended denouement has long been a challenge for directors because in the midst of all this dark, twisted storytelling, we get conventional comedy writing shuttling us to the improbably, and frankly unwelcome, happy ending.
Hillman has a few tricks up her sleeve, and even if it means re-writing Shakespeare in the play’s final moments, let it be said that her inventions seem much more in tune with the violent, hot-tempered tone of the play.
For more information on Measure for Measure, visit www.impacttheatre.com.