Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare
directed by Ellen Geer

review by Phillip Kelly

I raised my eyebrow ever so slightly when I stepped in to watch Theatricum Botanicum's production of Measure for Measure. This is one of my favorite Shakesperean plays, and I'd never seen it performed. I'd never seen a production at Theatricum Botanicum. I wasn't certain the 1968's inspired setting would fit with how I perceived the show in my head. They had a lot to prove in one production. A difficult show. It's the kind of Shakespearean play that's slippery. Because of the ambiguity in the final moments, you have to look at the end, know what you want to do, and work your way backwards.

Vincentio, the Governor (Aaron Hendry), is leaving the city and puts Angelo (Adam Mondschein), a very strict soldier with the cleanest of records in charge during his absence. What Angelo doesn't know is that Vincentio dons the cloak of a friar and returns to spy, to see how Angelo's hand of justice cleans up the streets that he has allowed to overflow with sin and lawlessness. Angelo's first act is to sentence a young man, Claudio (Colin Simon), to death for impregnating a woman out of wedlock. Claudio's sister, Isabella (Willow Geer), a nun in training, goes to Angelo under the guidance of Lucio (Melora Marshall) to beg Angelo not to kill her brother. Angelo falls madly in love with Isabella and tells her the only way he'll release Claudio is if Isabella has sex with him. And so begins what would sound like a pretty heavy and complex play, dealing with religion, law, sexuality, death, ethics, love and forgiveness. And when I had read it and studied it, that's always what I imagined it would be. The city is a cesspool - it's how a very famous production directed by Peter Brooks saw it. The Duke is perhaps more manipulative than wise, and a few of his final decisions in the text as stated, are ambiguous - it always left me feeling like the Duke wasn't as great as he seemed to be. Ellen Geer's production turns this tale into a comedy with sharp insights and serious issues, but it is a comedy. The way she handled the end alone points to that; it is a romantic comedy in fact - for adults! And everything works so well. The cesspool becomes a group of citizens fighting for their freedoms and the final act becomes a heroic mad dash to make everything right. Vincentio becomes a romantic, leading man, figurehead - the second coming in a whirlwind of righteous fervor wrapped in the fairness of a loving leader.

The actors here are all top notch. There's not a single bad performance in the bunch. Even those that are on the stage for 7 lines kill you with laughter or break your heart. Hendry, Mondschein and Geer are the center of the show, the strongest core you could ask for. They give complexity to each of their characters. It would have been easy for any of these three to simply play good or evil, but they paint all of the colors in between. Gerald C. Rivers as a pimp named Pompey slides around the stage with panache, Thomas Ashworth brings a perfectly executed, vaudevillian sensibility to Elbow, and I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to mention Marshall as the wily (male) Lucio a second time. Marshall's Lucio may be one of the best comedic performances I see all year, and even when she does play it for laughs it's never at the expense of the character. It becomes one of the more grounded and complex characters of the show.  I always say a show is governed by it's weakest link and there really are none. Leo Knudson, Charlie Howell, Earnestine Phillips, Crystal Clark, Gillina Doyle, I could name everyone, all shine.

Not only are the actors wonderful, but they naturally adhere to the 60's setting. Nothing feels overdone or out of place or forced. Brief appearances by Martin Luther King Jr. ground the recent historical setting and focus the Bard's themes into that time period, which in turn makes the show that much more relevant for us. And, boy howdy, is it a relevant show for our times, when our leaders sometimes seem more criminal than the criminals they prosecute. It's a show I've been wanting to do for awhile just for that reason. All of the updates to the text are really quite brilliant and never pull focus from the poetry of Shakespeare's verse or prose.

The costumes are fun, the musical interludes are entertaining and the stage is beautiful and used wisely; it fits the 60's hippie and revolution setting perfectly.

I ask one thing of Ms. Geer: clean up the slow motion sequence. It's brief, but it truly was the only time during the show that I fell out of the world that was created for my enjoyment. There's no excuse when it feels like every other tiny detail is greased and running so smoothly. That even a brief moment should feel so under rehearsed is unfortunate. Get a dance choreographer in there asap. That minor quibble aside, one of the best productions of Shakespeare I've seen in a long while.

This production is playing in rep with A Midsummer's Night Dream and Shaw's Heartbreak House.
Where: The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Blvd, Topanga Canyon, CA 90290
June 2nd-Sept 30th
For tickets and showtimes: or 310-455-3723

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