- Andrew May and Kathryn Cherasaro look for Webster's definition of "virgin."
Although we're currently inundated with the scolds of self-appointed moralists and their never-ending battle with the vexing realities of human sexual urges, the sex police are hardly a new phenomenon. William Shakespeare knew all about them when he wrote Measure for Measure, a comical reflection on sexual hypocrisy and the disfiguring effects of power and corruption. In this slick production of the play, by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, there are a plethora of amusing scenes, and the staging is a feast for the eyes. But a couple performances fall short of capturing the full character development that could make this play soar.
This version is set in a "modern city," the playing areas shaped by metal superstructures with semi-abstract images projected onto them. As designed by Russell Metheny, it is a coldly contemporary but undeniably fascinating place.
The Duke, as municipal head honcho, decides to skip town in order to discover why his city is going down the tubes, morality-wise. So he puts in charge tight-assed Angelo, a guy who is apparently so wedded to abstinence his shorts squeak. But the Duke secretly disguises himself as a friar and hangs around in order to observe how Angelo whips his burg back into shape.
True to his billing, Angelo arrests a young nobleman, Claudio, for knocking up his fiancée, Juliet (Laura Welsh), since there is a rule on the books against boffing before marriage. And the penalty for that indiscretion is death, which may seem a tad harsh to most people. One of those is Claudio's sister Isabella, an intern nun, who begs Angelo to save her brother's life. Little does she know that Angelo is turned on by hopeless pleading and seeks to deal with his blue-ball situation by trading Claudio's life for a roll in the sack with this bride-to-be of Christ.
Obviously, things get complicated from that point, as the Duke/friar snoops around offering his advice and suggesting an identity switch to sabotage Angelo's reign of repressive terror. As the Duke, Richard Klautsch is every inch a nobleman, and he has a deft sense of comic timing, especially when managing one of his many double takes. But at times, he falls into a rhythmic speech pattern that camouflages easy comprehension, pronouncing his words as if they were neatly separated by little plastic spacers. And his friar sounds much too similar to his Duke.
Andrew May successfully portrays Angelo's struggles with his attraction to Isabella. But he seems unsure about how diabolical to make Angelo, so this centerpiece of evil feels a bit squishy. More on point is Kathryn Cherasaro, who makes Isabella believably pious and humble one minute, and fiercely unrelenting the next, denying her brother's entreaty that she give up her virginity for his life.
In the somewhat thankless role of Claudio, Jeffrey C. Hawkins delivers Shakespeare's crystalline meditation on mortality with admirable intensity: "The weariest and most loathed worldly life/That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment can lay on nature/Is a paradise to what we fear of death." Also quietly effective is Aled Davies as the wise lord Escalus.
Much of the comic relief comes via Lucio, a local eccentric who is all id wrapped in a '70s-looking leather jacket and topped with a mullet. Even though David Anthony Smith seems as though he's acting in a different play half the time -- or maybe an episode of Starsky & Hutch -- his white Huggy Bear provides amusing counterpoint to some of the serious goings-on. And his stream of sexual metaphors ("He put a ducat in her clack dish," "He filled a bottle with a funnel," etc.) keeps the sexual theme front and center.
In smaller roles, Dougfred Miller is a stitch as Elbow, a constable so dim-witted he makes Barney Fife look like a Rhodes scholar. And he is frightfully menacing as the aptly named executioner Abhorson. Lynn Allison and M.A. Taylor add some comical moments as Mistress Overdone and her lackey Pompey.
Director Risa Brainin has a lot of fun with her contemporary setting, arming many characters with cell phones that are neatly integrated into this pre-digital script (although why no one had a "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" ringtone is mystifying).
Thanks to Michael Klaers' layered lighting and some original scoring by Brad Carroll, this GLTF production has a fresh and invigorating look and feel. And that makes for a most satisfying theatrical evening, if not a transcendent one.