BWW Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE at Marin Shakespeare Company
One of Shakespeare's least performed works, Measure for Measure, is also one of his best. With some of his most stunning verse alongside his bawdiest humor, it teeters on the razor edge between comedy and tragedy so delicately that it is considered one of his three "problem plays." This vibrant production at Marin Shakespeare elucidates much of the play's wit while not quite reaching the emotional heights of its soaring poetry.
As in many of his works, Shakespeare here plays with dichotomies-his men are either from the ruling or the working classes, and his women are literally either madonnas or whores, with one notable exception. This production is set in and around San Quentin prison, where the company regularly works with prisoners, as the play deals with morality and justice and the inadequacies of black and white laws in a world of grays.
After his dukedom has fallen into licentious chaos, Vincentio (Patrick Russell), leaves his stringent deputy, Angelo (a capable and menacing Joseph Patrick O'Malley), in charge. Angelo immediately lays down the law by sentencing Claudio (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) to death for impregnating his lover. His sister, Isabella (Luisa Frasconi), has just entered the convent but appeals to Angelo on her brother's behalf, where he offers her a harrowing choice: her brother's life for her chastity.
The parallels to the #MeToo movement and Kavanaugh hearings are obvious, but they are handled heavy-handedly here by a chorus of nuns parading around modern-day slogans-never mind that they are unable to speak to men unless in the presence of their Prioress. Frasconi deftly captures Isabella's ferocity, but adds a kind of casualness that lowers the stakes. Measure for Measure's ending is notoriously problematic, and Isabella is given no lines to give us her perspective on her fate, but here she is able to reject the patriarchy and indeed even the faith that she has clung to so desperately with hardly a second thought. In addition, Mariana (Isabelle Grimm), Angelo's disgraced former fiancée and one of the most stunningly written minor roles in the canon, is ironically upstaged by an unnecessarily dramatic ending for Angelo. The women's lack of agency is what makes the play tragic, and the production fails to illustrate this.
Where the production really shines is in the comedy. Russell is a commanding presence as Vincentio makes the most of his anonymity and creates chaos among his subjects. Ariel Zuckerman is a standout as the wily Lucio who throws his friends under the bus before he receives his comeuppance. Ed Berkeley is a sly and cynical Pompey, and his breaks from the text are initially quite funny but provide diminishing returns-in this case, less would be more. Neil Thollander is hilarious in several roles, most notably his bumbling Elbow with his escalating malapropisms.
Timely and timeless, blisteringly funny and painfully sad, Measure for Measure is worth catching whenever it is performed, not least under the stars in Marin Shakespeare Company's beautiful amphitheatre.
Measure for Measure continues through July 21st at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Ave. San Rafael, CA, 94901. Tickets are available at 415.499.4488 or online at http://www.marinshakespeare.org/.
Photos by Jay Yamada