Review by Matthew A. Everett in his website, In my Humble Opinion.
Originally published September 16, 2007
Measure for Measure – Nightpath Theatre – 5 stars
How far would you go to save the life of someone you loved?
Quick – what’s the first word that comes into your head when I mention the concept of producing Shakespeare’s comedy-drama “Measure for Measure” onstage as a group of actors pretending to perform a radio play version, all doing multiple roles, complete with sound effects, set in the Old West of Vienna, California?
Not the word you were thinking? Trust me, neither was I. But after seeing Nightpath Theatre Co.’s production of “Measure for Measure,” brilliant is exactly the word that springs to mind. Shakespeare purists may recoil in horror at the very idea, but anyone who loves great theater should enjoy themselves enormously. I can’t recommend this show highly enough.
Frankly, the first word that occurred to me upon sitting down and reading the director’s notes in the program – about the whole “radio show/Old West” concept – was “trainwreck.” Like, I’m sure, many other theatergoers, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with “Measure for Measure.” It’s a tough play to do well, and an easy play to do badly. I’ve seen two other productions by very good theater companies, one local, one touring from England, and in both cases I was left more than a little baffled. Nightpath’s production of “Measure for Measure” is the first one that helped it all make sense to me, and that’s no easy feat.
Apart from the fact that it’s Shakespeare, I’m sure the reason “Measure for Measure” gets done so much is that the play has a killer hook – an upholder of law and morals (Angelo) has sentenced a young man (Claudio) to death for conceiving a child out of wedlock, even though the young man has since married the pregnant lady in question (Julietta). Claudio’s sister Isabella, about to take vows as a nun and enter the life of the convent, pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life. Angelo is enamored of Isabella and presents her with a deal – he’ll spare her brother’s life, if she’ll have sex with him. The scenes between Angelo and Isabella, and Isabella and Claudio, have been meaty fodder for acting classes for (literally) hundreds of years.
The problem is that the play those scenes exist in is damn near impenetrable otherwise. There are, of course, the inevitable parade of clown characters – Mistress Overdone the local whorehouse proprietress, and her pimp-in-waiting Pompey; self-deputized citizen law enforcer and moral watchdog Elbow; two-faced, self-important court hanger-on Lucio – the list goes on, and on, and on. A wide panoply of characters in the divided city teetering on the brink of lawlessness and moral decay are trotted out to make the case both that Angelo’s kind of crackdown might be needed to restore order, and that human nature makes neat and tidy judgments extremely difficult.
On top of this collection of miscreants, there is also the tremendously convoluted plot that puts Angelo into power in the first place. The Duke leaves Angelo in charge so that he may go out in disguise as a priest and walk among the people – learn how they live, see just how bad things are out in world, hear just how the people feel about the way he’s been governing. While undercover, the Duke gets a rude awakening not only about the people living in his town, but also about Angelo, and decides to involve himself in Isabella’s quest to get justice for both her brother and herself.
It is in unraveling the convoluted plot and giving the audience greater access to the characters and their competing strategies that Nightpath’s production excels. Rather than present the audience with the hurdles of a highly complex plot, coupled with the challenge of understanding it in iambic pentameter and Elizabethan English, the radio show framework enables the story to be highly streamlined. A lot of the Duke’s plotting is now put in the more economical mouth of the on-air narrator, who in all instances pares the sections down to the barest of essential information, spoken in that suspenseful cliffhanger sort of delivery that drives the story ever forward. Also, this is spoken in more standard modern English. The poetry is lost, to be sure, but it keeps the show moving forward toward the scenes and character interactions that are the true heart of the play.
Though the acting ensemble is essentially portraying another acting ensemble in the form of the radio show players, this added layer of character work does not confuse the issue. If anything, it makes the production more accessible from the opening moments. We see more modern-day human beings (though harkening back to our early to mid-twentieth century past, they’re closer to us than the original actors who first spoke the words of this play more than 300 years ago). They are each in their own way, stereotypes (the leading man, the self-important artist, the buxom ingenue, the reluctant understudy, the character actor, the stage manager, etc.) The audience is able to latch onto them immediately.
The radio sound effects (created live as the actors perform) not only make for many humorous moments, they cleverly draw us into full use of our imaginations. We buy further into the story that the company is selling us. The many layers of artifice also allow us to concentrate on the language. The actors use those opening scenes of exposition to establish character in broad strokes which make each personality in the story memorable and easily identifiable. Subtlety comes later. One actor (Ben Layne) creates a character slow of speech and gate in the play, and a radio actor persona forgetful of where his sentences end, repeatedly coming back to truly finish off a line. In addition to the humor gleaned from otherwise potentially dry passages in this manner, he, and the others interacting with him slow that first chunk of the play down just a bit so the audience can get used to the Shakespearean dialogue, and fully catch all the plot intricacies (which kick in right at the top). Later, when the sound effects gal (Sasha Walloch) is drafted to read Isabella when the original actress cannot be found in time, her initial clumsy readings accomplish the same two things – humor, and time to get used to both the language and the character.
Another part of the radio show world, commercials, give us brief (and naughty) interludes which provide us with another chance to catch up, and for the play to indicate that time has passed and we are transitioning into another section of the tale. There’s a nod to nostalgia of the recent past, before we dive back into the Old West, which itself is standing in for the Vienna of Shakespeare’s original of centuries still further in the past. And the Old West provides some handy archetypes for us to translate the Duke and his political intrigues into something we can more readily understand. The Duke is the good sheriff (complete with white cowboy hat later on, just to put a button on it). He deputizes Angelo, dressed in black (complete with black cowboy hat later on, same point) to take over in his absence. Escalus, the Duke’s other deputy, slow in word and deed, provides a link between the two men. Since most Wild West towns have a local saloon and house of ill repute, as well as nearby missions with nuns and priests acting as missionaries to the pioneers, all the necessary locations and groups of people needed by Shakespeare’s script are easily and believably near at hand. Our schooling in western TV and movie cliches makes for great shorthand here.
The real brilliance of the concept, however, comes when the actors descend from the proscenium and out from behind their big old-style radio microphones, set down their scripts, and join the audience on floor level. The seating is split down the middle with a generous playing area in between. When we reach the scene where Angelo makes his indecent proposal to Isabella to save her brother’s life, the actors are right up close to the spectators. Though the radio show conceit is returned to throughout the rest of the evening, from this point on, all the radio actors have fully immersed themselves in their characters and story. By this time, the audience is with them, and the results are incredibly compelling. The humor continues, but the drama is top-notch.
All of Maggie Scanlan’s great work as director providing a framework and context would be for naught without a great acting ensemble, and Scanlan has assembled a doozy of one. Michael Ooms portrays both Angelo, the hyprocritical moral enforcer, and Claudio, the young man Angelo has condemned to die. It is a truly amazing pair of performances. Both characters are extremely conflicted for very different reasons, yet both plead with the pure Isabella to subjugate her body to their needs. As with many of the other players, Ooms’ characters provide ample opportunity for both comedy and drama and he makes the most of both sets of opportunities. It’s one of the strongest performances I’ve seen, in or out of a Shakespeare play, period.
Matching him, note for note, is Sasha Walloch as Isabella. Sasha starts the evening as the sound effects girl for the radio company and has a heck of a time with those duties. When the intended actress to play Isabella in the radio company is missing in action, she is dragged away from her sound effects table to stumble through the young nun’s opening scenes. Once she’s been drafted for the duration by the radio players, she has gone from stumbling, to greater assurance, to full-on “break your heart” heroine, torn between loyalty to her religious calling and the possibility of saving her brother from death, at a high cost to her soul. Isabella is a character who could run afoul of seeming self-righteous, unfeeling, or even melodramatic in her trials, but Walloch keeps her grounded, sympathetic, and extremely compelling to watch. This was the first time I’d had the pleasure of seeing Walloch onstage – normally she’s helping run the small theater company Commedia Beauregard. After seeing her Isabella, I look forward to seeing her get out from behind the curtain more often.
Jonathan Gregory is great as the (Sheriff) Duke, masquerading for a time as a priest and manufacturing elaborate intrigues to reward the good and punish the bad. In Greagory’s hands, the Duke seems like a genuinely decent, if misguided, man. And the supposedly romantic conclusion, in which the Duke preposterously asks a nun-in-training for her hand in marriage, works in this production on a number of levels, thanks to the direction and performances. Mostly it works because we don’t believe for a second that it’s going to happen. We see, however, how the Duke, too, becomes beguiled by Isabella and her goodness. But in trying to orchestrate Angelo’s downfall, the Duke tells Isabella that her brother is dead. Even after he stages the joyful reunion of the siblings, we quite understand the look Isabella gives the Duke when he makes his marriage proposal. “Are you serious?” the look on her face seems to say. The audience agrees. The Duke, peppered with unpleasant jolts of reality throughout the play, takes this as yet another one. Gregory’s Duke puts on a brave face in public, though he, too, realizes he may have a rejection coming. It’s a subtle and winning performance of a complicated character.
The supporting players are all equally strong, all of them playing two or three roles apiece at minimum. The previously mentioned Ben Layne segues without missing a beat from Escalus (slow of foot and tongue) to the bawdy Mistress Overdone in her purple feather boa and long red silk gloves. Kiseung Rhee is great as the radio show announcer and narrator who keeps the show humming along, and gets in a couple of other colorful characters as well, including the pivotal frontier jailer known as the Provost. Caitlin Hammel crashes across gender lines to play the duplicitous Lucio, among others, getting herself in deeper every time she talks behind someone else’s back. Sheila Regan is especially delightful as the wronged Marianna, who plays a key part in Angelo’s comeuppance at the end, as well as the inept radio actress who keeps wandering off at inopportune times and missing her entrances, thus losing the big role of Isabella to the sound effects gal. Josh Stephens caps off the ensemble as its troubadour, providing lively live music throughout the evening to accent the goings on.
The company devised the costumes and they provide several theatrical moments, particularly as the play draws to a close. The biggest fun is had when Lucio goes to rip open the priest’s vestments only to find the Duke’s uniform underneath. In addition to that amusing reveal, Isabella trades in her wine-colored shawl used in the rest of the play for a blue-green version for the final scenes. This matches the accent of the Duke’s neck scarf, visually tying the odd couple together to ease the way for the Duke’s public declaration of love, however unsuccessful it might ultimately prove to be.
As I said before, I really can’t recommend this production from Nightpath highly enough. Director/producer Maggie Scanlan and her troupe have crafted some tremendous fun, with meaty dramatic scenes balancing the raucous comedy. It’s really great stuff.
-Matthew A. Everett