Shakespeare Theatre Company Measure for MeasureBy Bob Ashby • Sep 26th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Shakespeare Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Lansburgh Theatre, Washington DC
Through October 27th
2:45 with intermission
Reviewed September 22nd, 2013
Wilkommen, beinvenue, welcome to Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Measure for Measure. Set in 1930s Vienna, the production begins with a pre-show cabaret evoking the wide-open Weimar-era nightlife made legendary by Christopher Isherwood and the various theatrical adaptations of his Berlin Stories. Cameron Folmar, who we find playing the cheerfully sleazy Lucio once the Shakespeare gets going, presides over the festivities, similar to but not a copy of the Joel Grey character in Cabaret (he even leads a number the staging of which is strongly reminiscent of “Two Ladies”). The cabaret is full of striking performances, including a torch song by Natascia Diaz (Mariana in the Shakespeare) and a strip number in which the performers’ costumes start out as sheer nuns’ habits and get progressively scantier. Many of the tunes used in the cabaret and the recorded music preceding it are drawn from the actual Berlin cabaret scene; one I happened to recognize is the delightful “Meine Beste Freundin” (roughly “My Special Girlfriend”), a 1928 hit for the young Marlene Dietrich concerning two women who dump their boyfriends in favor of each other.
It’s all very entertaining, but of course it has a point, as the Shakespeare Theatre’s reliably extensive and excellent background articles make clear. The cabaret scene of the 1930s German-speaking world on the verge of fascism is a metaphor for what director Jonathan Munby and literary associate Drew Lichtenberg see as the transgressive sexuality in Measure for Measure, in conflict with the forces of religion and social order not only in the wider society but also within individual characters.
Perhaps the most important of these internal conflicts affects the Duke (Kurt Rhoads). The audience first sees him at the very end of the cabaret, being simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by a muscular leather boy, knocking a chair to the floor as he begins Shakespeare’s lines. (The same attraction/repulsion/chair abuse sequence is repeated later in the play for additional emphasis.) Having allowed the society he ruled to veer in the direction of licentiousness, the Duke ill-advisedly delegates his power to Angelo (Scott Parkinson) and disappears. The lean and hungry-looking Angelo, he of the thin voice and rigid countenance, goes as far in the direction of repression as the Duke had gone in the direction of permissiveness.
Angelo’s first draconian act as ruler is to make an example of Claudio (Avery Clark), sentencing him to death for getting his girlfriend Juliet (Katie deBuys) pregnant. The Duke, portrayed by Rhoads as an enigmatic man of reason and mercy, disguises himself as a Friar and, in that identity, works behind the scenes to manipulate events and people to mitigate the harshness of Angelo’s decree. Angelo, meanwhile, seeming to others and even to himself as a straight-laced man of the law, is deeply conflicted between his insistence on state-enforced virtue and his own out-of-control lust, though Parkinson’s grabbing of his crotch on two occasions seems more blatant than needed to make the point. As Claudio’s virginal nun sister Isabella (Miriam Silverman) pleads for her brother’s life, Angelo conceives a cruel quid pro quo: he will spare Claudio’s life if she submits to him sexually.
Silverman wisely does not portray Isabella as a beauty who sends sexual signals to men – her devotion to her vocation’s rule of chastity is clear — emphasizing that what arouses Angelo is her very purity and his opportunity to overpower it. One of the key successes of the production is its clarity in showing, through Angelo’s conduct toward Isabella, that sexual coercion and violence are above all matters of the abuse of power. If you complain, who will believe you against me, Angelo asks her. That is a question that resonates in today’s sexual abuse scandals no less than in Shakespeare’s time.
Though taking his time, and seemingly a good deal of satisfaction, in letting his schemes play out to the prolonged anxiety of others, the Duke ultimately retakes control and restores balance to Vienna, showing mercy to all concerned. The audience reacted to his surprise proposal to Isabella at the very end of the play – surprising because Shakespeare’s script and Rhoads’ emotional neutrality in the role provide little if any preparation for it – as a comic moment. It isn’t clear whether Munby intended a laugh line here, though Claudio’s take to the audience added to the comic effect.
The production is full of well-realized character roles. Folmar’s Lucio is a humorously debauched smart-ass, who lightens the mood in a way that would fit well into screwball Hollywood comedies of the 30s. Jack Wetherall’s Escalus is a wise, kindly elder statesman, while Chris Genbach’s smiling, seldom-fazed Pompey is as sly and adaptable a low-life as one could ask for. Hugh Nees’ Elbow is a nice hybrid of Dogberry, malapropisms and all, and, minus the German accent, Sergeant Schultz from “Hogan’s Heroes.” As scorned woman Mariana, Diaz is a brooding, melancholy presence; her ability as a singing actor is used to good advantage in the second act as well as in the introductory cabaret.
The technical side of the production lives up to the Shakespeare Theatre’s typically high standards. Alexander Dodge’s set design is striking: peeling paint on the walls evokes the decrepitude – physical and social – of interwar Vienna, while movable jail cell units are marched into place with military precision for various scenes by well-choreographed members of the ensemble. Phillip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design includes a dramatic feature that links the scenes together visually and thematically: bright white light on a swirling smoke effect above center stage. The sound design and musical score (Walter Trarbach and Adam Wernick), especially notable during scene changes, emphasize metallic percussive sounds. Linda Cho’s costumes effectively complement the period and characters: among other things, black shirt uniforms for the military and police characters (though the SS-like hat and full length leather coat for the Provost are a little incongruous for Eric Martin Brown’s generally honorable character); a clingy black dress for Mariana; and suits for Angelo and Lucio fitting their tightly wound and racy characters, respectively.
With its pervasive focus on its concept and setting, the production skates on the edge of what might be called the Kander/Ebb error: imposing a strong, historically dubious, implication that the sexual expressiveness of the Weimar era in some sense caused Nazism. While the Nazis were only too happy to shut down the free-wheeling Berlin cabaret scene, and of course persecuted homosexuals along with Jews, people with disabilities, and communists, the political, economic, and historical factors that allowed the Nazis to take power were far more complex and powerful than anything occurring in nightclubs. And the animosity of Nazis for the cabaret scene owed perhaps as much to its leftist, anti-fascist politics (Dietrich, for one example, was an outspoken anti-Nazi) as to its sexual proclivities. At times, I wished to be able to think more about the characters and less about the concept.
Nevertheless, black-shirted fascists remain a universally understood symbol of authoritarian repression, and transgressive sexuality remains a symbol of individualism and liberty. Contrasting these symbols proves an effective way of conveying Shakespeare’s themes to a contemporary audience, especially given the high quality of the acting and production values in this Measure for Measure.
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Vincentio, the Duke: Kurt Rhoads
- Escalus, a Lord: Jack Wetherall
- Angelo, the Deputy: Scott Parkinson
- Lucio: Cameron Folmar
- Mistress Overdone, a Bawd: Naomi Jacobson
- Pompey, a Pimp: Chris Genebach
- Provost: Eric Martin Brown
- Claudio, a young gentleman: Avery Clark
- Juliet, beloved of Claudio: Katie deBuys
- Friar Peter: John Lescault
- Isabella, sister to Claudio: Miriam Silverman
- Justice: John Lescault
- Elbow, a constable: Hugh Nees
- Froth, a gentleman: Ned Noyes
- Mariana, engaged to Angelo: Natascia Diaz
- Abhorson, an executioner: Andrew Criss
- Barnadine, a prisoner: Dan Istrate
- Ensemble: S. Lewis Feemster, Jacqui Jarrold, Manu Kumasi, Michael Litchfield, Amber Mayberry, Jack Powers, Gracie Terzian, Jaysen Wright
- Director: Jonathan Munby
- Resident Casting Director: Daniel Neville-Rehbehn
- Production Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser
- Set Designer: Alexander Dodge
- Vocal Coach: Ellen O’Brien
- Literary Associate: Drew Lichtenberg
- Assistant Director: Gus Heagerty
- Lighting Designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
- Sound Designer: Walter Trarbach
- Stage Manager: Claire E. Zawa
- Assistant Stage Manager: Erin C. Patrick
- Composer: Adam Wernick
- Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig
- Fight Director: Robb Hunter
- German Cabaret Lyrics: Drew Lichtenberg
- Original English Cabaret Lyrics: Martin Hutson
Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9765.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.