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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Measure for Measure

" Some rise by sin, others by virtue fall " — Escalus
Measure for Measure
Erin Partin as Isabella
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

I reviewed a production of this play at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey as recently as 2007. Since the overview of the plot in that review ( Measure for Measure -2007) is, except for the inclusion of the opening paragraph, as timely and topical as ever, I will limit my observations to the performances, concept, design and staging.

Following on the heels of their outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors which was interrupted midway of the opening night with a noisy display of fireworks at a nearby country club, the opening night of Measure for Measure was halted midway of Act 1 when a smoke alarm went off creating an added intermission. The full house was ushered out of the theater for approximately thirty minutes – where champagne was served to all until the all-clear announcement. Up to the unexpected halt, the audience was being treated to a delightfully refreshed production of one of Shakespeare most difficult comedies, one that continued to be savored as the performance was resumed.

Credit Bonnie J Monte’s comedy-dominant direction that brings to the fore the inherent, but often neutralized, humor in the play. This is not only significant but succeeds in making this problematic play the most emphatically satiric version I have seen (among many). Whereas the previous production at STNJ was transported cleverly to the post-Civil War American West, it is now set in Vienna, as the Bard had originally envisioned. Although the era is now established as the 19th century, we quickly surmise that pimps, bawds (no matter how we refer to them) and trouble-makers are a constant factor in the human experience, all of them being reminders of what keeps the law-makers ranting and reeling with hypocritical indignation.

It is a pleasure to see how ingeniously a unit setting, especially one as handsomely designed in dark-hued wood amidst vertical bars (the work of director Monte and Brian Ruggaber) so commendably evokes Vienna, particularly the use of rich-looking contoured Austrian curtains and drapes.

Sean Mahan is plausibly despicable as Angelo, the impeccably groomed (despite his closely cropped 21st century haircut), high-minded but hypocritical deputy in the service of the Duke (Bruce Turk). He offers us a mesmerizing portrait of a sleazily seductive power-grabber, especially as it relates to his prey, the virginal Isabella (Erin Partin), about to enter a nunnery. There’s a lot of anguished soul-searching in Partin’s by-mixed-emotions-possessed performance, but it is understandable considering that Isabella’s brother Claudio (James Knight) is about to be hanged for the crime of fornication — that is making his fiancée Julietta (Rachel Fox) pregnant before they have taken their marriage vows.

I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun watching the many irresponsibly duplicitous characters who partake in the convoluted plot. Even as Shakespeare makes it clear why the kindly, if unwittingly naïve Duke leaves a scoundrel in charge, one cannot help but be disarmed by Turk’s self-effacing performance, peaking as he goes undercover as a snooping monk only to find himself smitten with the beguiling and very blonde and pretty Isabella, as who wouldn’t be?

Standout among the supporting cast is the near farcical manner deployed by Greg Jackson, as the slandering, jabbering, foot-in-his-mouth Lucio. He certainly stood out in his plum colored suit? Also gussied up to look like a barker at a Victorian carnival is the tall and imposing Raphael Nash Thompson who is gussied up to look like a barker at a Victorian carnival. He gives a wonderfully droll performance as Pompey, the pimp, in contrast to the comically distracted demeanor of his short and foolish side-kick Froth (Craig Bazan).

As intended, Ben Sterling gets the prescribed laughs as a prisoner who is too drunk to attend his own execution. If our hearts and our empathy go out to anyone in this play which is all about ingenuousness, it is to Richard Bourg’s fine now-I-get-it-now-I-don’t performance as the conflicted and woebegone Escalus, the court yes-man. I particularly liked the way that costume designer Paul Canada defined characters either by their flair for the progressively outré or by their more solemnly conservative taste. This is one time that Measure for Measure will afford you more opportunities to laugh than with reasons to confound.

Measure for Measure
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast: Bruce Turk (Duke Vincentio), Richard Bourg (Escalus), Adam Burns (Duke's Attendant), Sean Mahan (Angelo), Greg Jackson (Lucio), Michael Striano (First Gentleman), Ben Sterling (Second Gentleman), Jean Burton Walker (Mistress Overdone), Brandt Roberts (A Waiter), Raphael Nash Thompson (Pompey), Craig Bazan (Froth), James Knight (Claudio), Lindsay Smiling (Provost), Rachael Fox (Julietta), Darren Matthias (Friar Thomas), Erin Partin (Isabella), Julia Skeggs (Sister Francisca), Ben Sterling (Elbow), Julia Skeggs (Mariana's Attendant), Katie MacNichol (Marianna), Darren Matthias (Abhorson), Ben Sterling (Barnardine), Adam Burnsf, Brandt Roberts, Michael Striano, Jean Burton Walker (Officers and Citizens of Vienna).
Scenic Designers: Bonnie J. Monte, Brian Ruggaber
Costume Designer: Paul Canada
Lighting Designer: Steven Rosen
Sound Designer: Karin Graybash
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey – Main Stage: F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road (on the Drew University campus) Madison (973) 408 – 5600
Tickets: Tickets ($32 - $70)
Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sundays at 7:30 PM; Thursday thru Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturday and Sundays at 2 PM.
Closing 8/27/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/11/12
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