BWW Review: 1979's Rebellious Mardi Gras Inspires Mobile Unit's MEASURE FOR MEASURE
In 1979 a strike by the New Orleans Police Department led to the city's official cancellation of that year's public Mardi Gras celebration. The people of New Orleans had something else in mind.
With many tourists staying away, the locals took to the streets and partied on their own in merrier fashion than usual. The National Guard was brought in to protect against violence, but they weren't concerned with acts of consensual vice. Those who were there remember it as New Orleans' best Mardi Gras ever.
Director LA Williams cleverly uses this setting as the locale for The Public Theater's Mobile Unit's rambunctiously festive production of Shakespeare's MEASURE FOR MEASURE, a play centered around women's legal lack of agency in a patriarchal society. Having the play performed entirely by a company of women of color allows for the carnival atmosphere to be seen as an act of rebellion, mimicking the attitudes of the '79 revelers without undercutting the serious issues involved.
The Mobile Unit is The Public's branch that tours free, small-scale, edited mountings of Shakespeare plays to community centers, correctional facilities, shelters and other locations throughout the five boroughs before settling at the company's Astor Place home for several more weeks of free performances.
In keeping with Joseph Papp's credo that Shakespeare's plays belong to everyone, Mobile Unit productions are especially aimed at those who are less familiar with the bard's work, or even rarely get to attend theatre. For frequent playgoers, a good deal of the fun is seeing these productions through their eyes.
As is traditional with the Mobile Unit, designer Yu-Hsuan Chen provides minimal set pieces and the play is performed on a square mat, with the fully lit attendees surrounding it on all four sides. The setup allows for audience involvement, especially during the pre-show intro where viewers are made familiar with the play's themes when the host asks them to respond to questions. In this case, they're asked if they agree or disagree with statements like "No matter what, I'm always there for my family" and "My word is my bond."
Guests are also offered their choice of Mardi Gras beads; gold if you favor mercy over justice and purple if you feel the opposite way. After viewing the play, we're asked if anyone would like to switch colors.
The plot concerns an unfortunate fellow named Claudio (Lily Santiago) who is sentenced to death by Lord Angelo (Adrian Kiser), the puritanical temporary ruler left in charge during the absence of the Duke (Grace Porter), for impregnating his fiancée Juliet (Nora Carroll) before they're wed. When Claudio's sister Isabella (Jasmine Batchelor), who is about to enter a nunnery, pleads to Angelo for mercy, the hypocritical ruler suggests that an evening of her favors would change his mind, thus having her choose between her brother's life and her sacred vows.
Though MEASURE FOR MEASURE is traditionally regarded as one of Shakespeare's darker problem plays, Williams' staging is as bright and broad as the vibrant krewe colors used by costume designer Asa Renally. The live jazz music by Jeffrey Miller and the energetic group dances by Mayte Natalio enhance the playful atmosphere of this very enjoyable effort.