Measure for Measure at Shakespeare Hill
By Peter Hall:
THE BASICS: This dark early comedy by Shakespeare has been lightened up considerably by director Brian Cavanaugh who sets the play in the American Wild West complete with cowboy songs. This is the second of two Shakespeare in Delaware Park offerings this summer (the first was Hamlet) and it runs Tuesdays through Sundays through August 18th. The show runs 2 hours and 45 minutes with its single intermission. No admission is charged but a voluntary collection is taken at intermission. Food vendors are on site and clean porta-johns (and hand-washing sink!) are available, but outdoor temperatures may drop so bring a blanket or a jacket along with your folding chair.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Corrupt and lawless behavior in 1891 in the border town of Vienna, Texas has gotten completely out of hand. In order to judge just how bad the situation is, Sheriff Vincentio makes a show of leaving town so that he may return in disguise. In his absence he promotes the morally upright Angelo who immediately begins to enforce laws which have been ignored for decades. Angelo closes the saloons and the brothels and then sentences young Claudio to death for fornication. When Claudio’s devout sister begs forgiveness for her brother, Angelo abuses his power. The play, suitable for anyone 12 and older, is completely contemporary with issues that still make headlines 410 years after its first performance in 1604.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The cast is very well balanced in this production, and even though the role of Angelo is usually given to the strongest actor (and here it’s the only Actor’s Equity member in the cast) Patrick Moltane’s performance is only one of many solid portrayals. Angelo does require rock solid acting skills because he is the only character to travel a long arc of self-awareness. The actor must, in the course of the play, transform from a morally rigid bureaucrat with ice water in his veins to a very hot blooded sexual predator and then partly back again to a new position somewhere in between. As Mariana (Diane Curley), who loves Angelo despite his faults advises: “They say, best men are moulded out of faults, And, for the most, become much more the better, For being a little bad.”
The only other transformation involves the Sheriff, Vincentio (Matt Witten) who toggles back and forth between his character in disguise, a monk with a strong Irish brogue, and his real self (revealed to the audience and a few other characters). It’s not subtle, but it’s not meant to be, and, for his part, whatever character he is for the moment, he stays in character, which can be tricky, as anyone who’s even tried to tell a dialect joke has discovered.
The only other character who might be transformed during the course of the action is Isabella (Susan Drozd) the virtuous sister of the soon-to-be-executed Claudio (Bryan Zybala). The actress is fine; it’s the role that’s the problem, and that role is one of the reasons that this so-called comedy is known as one of Shakespeare’s “Problem Plays.” Six of Shakespeare’s plays have that designation (including “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “The Merchant of Venice”) either because of morally ambiguous behavior that isn’t completely right or wrong or simply because they are hard to classify as either comedy or tragedy. I was told in college that “if it ends in a marriage, it’s a comedy and if it ends in a death, it’s a tragedy. Period.” Spoiler alert: nobody dies in “Measure for Measure” and the plays ends with at least one, maybe two marriages about to take place. So this is a comedy.
And everyone on stage does a fine job of character acting and pulling the laughs out of this play. Escalus (Steve Petersen) dispenses folksy wisdom (not ALL of the dialog is from the bard) such as “don’t squat with your spurs on” while the standard trio of “low” characters Pompey (Ray Boucher), Froth (Todd Fuller), and Elbow (Geoff Pictor) do a good job of bringing 400 year old bawdy puns to our century. (One wonders how the comedy of Robin Williams will fare in the year 2414.) Another broad comic role is that of Lucio (Zak Ward) who plays a sleazy operator and he gets lots of laughs.
Some of the comedy is silent, and kudos go out to Maria Nicole Held and Maura Nolan who each have the double role of “Saloon Gal / Scene Change Goddess” in which they strut downstage holding large signs identifying where the next scene takes place (Saloon, Jail, Town Square, etc.) with appropriate facial expressions and body language, usually rather saucy.
The stage is well decorated, the costumes look authentic, and the incidental music, taken from what seemed like a variety of cowboy movies, sets the mood. A number of the characters stop the action to sing cowboy songs, and, in general, the men seem to be better singers than the women, but they also wisely have other cast members sing back-up, which covers a multitude of vocal sins. Unfortunately, the director did not extend this courtesy to the women, so that the first song we hear – “Rose of San Antone” – belted out by the owner of the brothel, Mistress Overdone (Sheila Connors) strikes a sour note early in the play. Later, again as a solo, Isabella (Susan Drozd) sings “Don’t Fence Me In” and it isn’t much better. It would be very easy to add some female supporting voices and perhaps later showings will include this.
The shakespeare in delaware park Mission Statement is printed on the last page of the 32 page program guide (handed out as you arrive by younger actors in costume and in character) and this play certainly lives up to their mission. For purists, you can always buy a ticket and drive 2-1/2 hours to Stratford, Ontario where “Measure For Measure” is on stage through September 28th (ten days after Shakespeare in Delaware Park closes). My strong advice is to use this play to introduce young people over the age of 12 to theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular and then, on the way home, try to listen to their reactions.