Review: DESPERATE MEASURES at Constellation Theatre

Desperate Measures is a comedic, Wild West re-telling of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

By: Feb. 22, 2024
Review: DESPERATE MEASURES at Constellation Theatre
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DESPERATE MEASURES, now playing at DC’s Constellation Theatre, takes Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE, adds a slew of songs, and reimagines the story in America’s Western territory of present-day Arizona in the late 1890s. The “Wild West” serves as the backdrop for Shakespeare’s famous “problem play” and tells a story that centers on a nun, known as Susanna (played by understudy Julia Link on the night of this review), as she attempts to save her brother, notorious outlaw Johnny Blood (Hunter Ringsmith), from being publicly hanged. 

We start the proceedings by learning Johnny Blood is in jail and sentenced to death following a barroom brawl-turned-shootout over a woman, Blood’s girlfriend and saloon showgirl Bella Rose (played by understudy Audrey Baker on the night of this review). Blood’s only living next of kin, Susanna, is told by the town’s Sheriff (Tyler Dobies) about her brother’s plight. Blood will be hanged in 48 hours unless she does something to stop the execution. Susanna decides her only recourse is to appeal for clemency from the corrupt Governor Von Richterhenkenplfichtgetruber (Greg Watkins). 

When Susanna begs the governor for his pardon, his wickedness is revealed. He’ll free Blood, he says, but only in exchange for a one-night romp with the accused’s sister. Besides being blatant sexual coercion, a topic Constellation makes an effort to warn audiences about beforehand, Susanna has a central objection to the proposition – she’s set to join a convent in just 48 hours and devote herself to a life of service to the Church. If she goes through with the Governor’s proposal, she puts her spot in the convent in jeopardy. Desperate to save her brother and preserve her chastity at the same time, she works with the Sheriff to hatch a plan to do both.

Together, they’ll recruit saloon girl Bella Rose to, pardon the expression, do the dirty work with the Governor, and save Blood in the process. It’s not as big of an ask as it sounds at first, though. Besides being a professional in matters like these, Bella Rose is in love with Johnny Blood. It was she whose honor the outlaw was fighting for in the first place. She feels she’s obligated to save his life not just because of her heart but also because of her gratitude. 

Bella Rose agrees to the plot, and the three get to work to execute the plan. For it to work, Bella Rose must dress, act, and walk the part – not an easy feat for a woman of the night pretending to be one of the convent.

As is customary for Shakespeare, the big night arrives alongside lots of hijinks and physical comedy along the way. Those familiar with MEASURE FOR MEASURE know that the plan is successful but only after several unforeseen obstacles are cleared along the way. Just like any good Western, the good guys triumph over the bad, and justice is served. Plus, we get not one but two weddings to boot!

Though the plot is familiar, it is perhaps a bit problematic in today’s modern theatre. For one, and Constellation should be commended for addressing this in the program, the show is set in 1890s Arizona without a single Indigenous person in sight. It’s a curious omission for a show that was created by contemporary writers Peter Kellogg and David Friedman in 2017, and it makes the piece feel outdated just seven years in the future. Constellation is right to address the issue and make admirable space for it in the program. 

Perhaps even more problematic, however, is the healthy dose of sexism present in the plot. Constellation sends mixed messages here in dealing with the issue. The program correctly states that “the subordination of women” and “attitudes towards sex work” are themes explored in the piece. The program also correctly states the women in the story are smart, creative, and brave. While the women are smart and brave, they’re also presented in just two ways – either as a nun or a “woman of the night.” There’s no in-between. Well, there’s really three options if you count being made someone’s wife. 

All in all, it’s not quite the empowering, feminist piece Constellation seemingly wants it to be. The women have great character traits, but they still function within ugly boundaries. After all, we’re told the piece took out half the play, but “kept all the sex” - with most of it being of the coercive, non-consensual variety. One can’t overlook the problematic tropes at play here in a contemporary piece of theatre that should probably know better.  

These shortcomings in the plot aside, the company does well with the material. Julia Link (Susanna) and Audrey Baker (Bella Rose) were terrific on their own but shine together, which is great news because the show doesn’t work without this dynamic. Tyler Dobies plays a fine Sheriff Green and a nice compliment to Link’s Susanna. Hunter Ringsmith as Johnny Blood does well as the not-too-bright but wild outlaw, but it’s his song, “It’s Good To Be Alive,” that is the highlight for the character and perhaps the best of Kellogg and Friedman’s score. Highsmith tackles the tenor notes admirably, and it’s a nice moment of sincerity amidst the comedic hijinks. 

Bobby Libby is the real wildcard of the evening playing the role of Father Morse. He’s a man of the cloth wrestling with doubt in the existence of God thanks to a newfound love of the German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Additionally, he drinks a bit, which adds to the hilarity of the character. Libby has an abundance of great lines but he doesn’t always quite hit the mark with the comedy. Several of his bits come oh-so-close to inspiring riotous laughter, but it’s ultimately a good performance that grows on you as the musical progresses. 

As the slimy Governor, Greg Watkins is a perfect fit, which is meant to be a compliment to Watkins I promise. Of no fault to Watkins, the character isn’t given much depth and relies on tired comedic tropes that feel mostly out-of-date. Watkins makes the most of it and still makes the character his own. He’s a perfect foil to the proceedings, and much like his fellow players, Watkins has the vocal chops to elevate the role. 

Together, this is a very talented ensemble with terrific voices that combine to make for a very solid affair. These excellent vocals cover up several comedic beats that aren’t quite right. The jokes come at a mile-a-minute pace, and so it isn’t a surprise that they don’t all land. There are several moments where over-the-top comedy is required, and that’s when the company really excels, but it’s the subtle humor that is missing here. Still, audiences will delight in the high-quality talent on stage. 

Additionally, two designers in particular deserve special mention for their vital contributions to the musical. Samuel Klaas, the Scenic Designer, truly maximizes the intimate 14th St. theatre by installing the most economically spaced turntable I’ve ever seen. Klaas also creatively found a way to put a stationary jail on stage without completely overwhelming the rest of the playing space. Jeannette Christensen’s costume designs are also terrific, and nothing feels out of place in this Wild West comedy. Both designers no doubt had hard-working teams to help execute their respective visions and all should be commended for enhancing the experience. 

The remainder of the creative team includes Allison Arkell Stockman (Director and Founding Artistic Director), Nikki Mirza (Choreographer), Refiye Tappan (Music Director), E-hui (Lighting Designer), Kevin L. Alexander (Sound Designer), Amy Kellett (Props Designer), Jenny Male (Intimacy and Fight Director), Jenna Bark (Dialect Coach), and Jenna Keefer (Production Stage Manager). 

DESPERATE MEASURES runs from now until March 17, 2024 at DC’s Source Theatre space on 14th St. ASL interpreted performances will be on March 2 and 7. Please note that masks will be required at Saturday matinees throughout the run. The musical has a run time of 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

Photo credit: Hunter Ringsmith (Johnny Blood), Julia Link (Susanna), and Tyler Dobies (Sheriff Martin Green) in Desperate Measures at Constellation Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.


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