Sunday, May 18, 2008

Taking measure

Glendale, May 17--

MEASURE FOR MEASURE TONIGHT: what an amazing play! We saw it at the small, community Eclectic Company Theatre: several of the actors were Equity, but the stage was small and somewhat improvised, the company rather uneven. I couldn't entirely agree with the director's take on Shakespeare's intention -- in a program note he suggested the play was a "satire," that the Immortal Bard had been uncomfortable writing the comic pages, and he pared a good bit of that stuff -- but we were certainly persuaded by his pacing and pointing of the two and a half hours that remained.

It's a difficult play, a "problem play." The Duke puts his cousin on the throne but hangs around in disguise to see what will happen. The cousin, given power, is corrupted. People are jailed and sentenced to death. The virgin agrees to sacrifice her honor to save her brother. Disguised as a friar, the Duke weaves a complex plot. In the end justice prevails.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, I learned in college; but several of them are really different workings-out of a small number of themes, and Measure for Measure belongs with The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and (in a curious way) Hamlet, all different views of the Lead Character as Playwright idea. It's tempting, then, to think the ideas in this play, weighted with questions of ethics and justice, are ideas that particularly haunted Shakespeare, who lived in a time of questionable political ethics, a time of global imperialism and reckless human and economic adventure.

Not so different from our own, and the director, Morgan Nichols, took pleasure in the fact that David Bardeen, who played the villainous Angelo, bore a physical resemblance to John Ashcroft. His corruption grows slowly, softly, but steadily, tumescent; he's as much a victim of it as is his victim.

Laura Lee Bahr was the victim, Isabella, in a beautifully scaled and detailed performance, fully fleshed out, good-humored, patient, alert: the role grows to rival Portia and Viola. Oded Gross was an interesting Duke, off to a tentative start where more authority seems needed, but deliberately emphasizing the disengagement this artist-figure must convey as he retires behind the plot he has set in motion -- while still steering it, like the Don Alfonso of Mozart's Così fan tutte.

There were nice performances elsewhere: especially Christine Krebsbach's Provost and Kerr Seth Lordygan's Lucio. Lori Meeker's costumes were effective, as were Nichols's sound cues. Ultimately it was Shakespeare himself, as usual, who turned in the greatest performance. Measure for Measure is a great play, complex and difficult as ethics, direct and inevitable as difficulty. Like so much great art, it's completely relevant to our time. It's good to see it honored at this level.

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