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Measure for Measure
A premeditated bedroom mix-up and tragic material forced into a comic mold have led many Shakespeare buffs to regard Measure for Measure several measures below the crème de la crème of Shakespeare's canon. Yet anyone who catches the idiosyncratic Target Margin Theater's production will understand why its socio-political themes have long brought comments about its being uncannily up-to-date.
The plot centers on Angelo (Andrew Dolan), the righteous deputy empowered by the Duke of Vienna, (the excellent Will Badgett), to rule the citizenry while he wanders about disguised as a friar to investigate the moral decay of his dukedom. Resorting to an archaic law against fornication to enforce his strict standards of morality, Angelo proceeds to condemn bawds (whores) and fornicators to death with due speed and zealotry. One of these fornicators is Claudio (Greig Sargeant), a young man who has had pre-marital sex with his fiancee. When Claudio's virginal sister Isabella (Sheri Graubert) comes to plead for her brother's life, Angelo's lust is aroused. Worse still his moral spine is so wobbly that he uses his power to blackmail Isabella into his bed. It's her virtue or Claudio's life. The outraged novitiate threatens to expose him but is told "who will believe you?" Fortunately -- or to be more precise, coincidentally, the Duke does hear and Angelo ends up in the bed of Mariana (Jaqueline Gregg), a woman from his undisclosed past, Claudio is allowed to live happily ever after with his Juliet, and the virtuous (and self-righteous) Isabella ends up the Duke's rather than God's bride. As per the title and outcome of one of his other so-called troubled plays, all's well that ends well. (See link to review of a version of that play).
Modern twists and turns are hardly new for any Shakespeare play and Measure has had its share of re-conceived productions. In 1981, the Lyttleton Theatre in London set the action in a Caribbean island and Angelo was a Black bishop. A 1997 Off-Off-Broadway showcase production re-set the play in Manhattan with the Duke as the Mayor of New York and Angelo a dictatorial police commissioner.
Except for additions like "No More Words" -- used to announce the end of the casual milling about of the actors on stage and the beginning of the "real" play -- director David Herskovits has remained true to the text and his multi-cultural cast of fifteen speaks it clearly if not with Shakespearian grandeur. The plot elements are also all Shakespeare's, with the link to the theme's timeliness left to the creative team.
The costumes blend historic with modern street clothes and dollops of vaudeville. Besides twentieth century accessories such as wrist watches there are sight gag accents: a necklace that's looks like and is a miniature holy chapel, Mistress Overdone's (Victoria Boomsma) artificial and (what else?) overdone breasts and a sparkly silver outfit reminiscent of a circus ringmaster at one point worn by Lucio (Mary Neufeld). Three gold cage-like boxes on wheels moved to different parts of the two-level stage as needed effectively add to the circus-vaudeville flavor. To mark the end of one scene and the beginning of another we have startling bursts of rap music sending the ensemble zooming across the stage.
All in all this Measure seems sprung from the messy national headlines as well as the hustle and bustle of the East Village neighborhood surrounding the Connelly Theater. (Check the link to our East Village Navigational Guide). The prisoners wearing "Fornicator" and "Whore" signs could as easily be wearing sandwich boards advertising this show.
While I prefer my Shakespeare less dependent on in-your-face novelty, what Mr. Herskovits and his creative team and actors have wrought is certainly an accessible and highly theatrical evening. I very much liked the way the orchestra's front row seats were decorated to match the set. This enables the actors to be visible when off-stage without the need to act since the audience can't see their faces.
The ensemble work is excellent, with Sheri Graubert and Andrew Dolan giving particularly strong readings of personalities with whom a psychotherapist could have a field day. Angelo's "I give my sensual race the rein/Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite" epitomizes the moral irony inherent in this sick and tormented man. Isabella's chilling "Then, Isabel, live chaste, and brother, die: More than our brother is our chastity" epitomizes the harshness of the good, righteous and overly fervent.
Consumer Information: Check out the East Village Navigational Guide we posted when we last reviewed a play at this venue. It will help audiences enjoy their visit to this charming theater in a neighborhood mistakenly considered unsafe by some out-of-towners or Upper East Siders.
All's Well That Ends Well
For other Shakespeare reviews, see Shakespeare's Little Instruction Book