Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: (Vancouver) Measure for Measure

Problem Play Vivid Solution
Strong Actors Visionary Direction 
by David C. Jones

William Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure in either 1604 or 1605 and although considered a comedy (based mostly on its rather convenient happy ending) it has some very dark storylines and thus has been classified by scholars as one of the “problem plays”. Along with Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That End’s Well the play explores complex themes like carnal desire vs marital fidelity, religious devotion vs human desires, the needs of the one vs the needs of the many (society).

Visionary director John Murphy has decided to set the play in New Orleans in 1900.

Such themes are not often at the forefront of comedy but themes like these are what helps make Shakespeare’s other plays timeless.

The story of Measure for Measure begins with a Duke (played by Andrew Wheeler nobly and world weary) who decides to take a leave of absence and assigns a very pious judge, named Angelo, to watch over his community in his absence. The first thing the judge does is shut down all the bawdy houses, which upsets Mistress Overdone (an eccentrically wild Lois Anderson). He also condemns a man named Claudio to death for impregnating his girlfriend before marrying her. A dubious man named Lucio goes to Isabella, a novice nun - and tells her of the sentence against Claudio (Luc Roderique) her brother and asks her to plead with the judge to spare him. In the meantime the new law of the land had ensnared Pompey (David Marr) a petty thief and friend of Mistress Overdone. Isabella meets with the pious Angelo who is instantly smitten, he promises to release Claudio if she “lay down the treasures of her body”. What is
 a devout nun to do?
Visionary director John Murphy has decided to set the play in New Orleans in 1900. In the opening scenes we are treated to sumptuous yet time appropriate wardrobe by Mara Gottler as the cast sings old jazz inspired original tunes and dabble in voodoo. The thrust stage in Bard On The Beach’s second tent features three trap doors and a zydeco-like band with banjo, trumpet and drum. In the upstage corner is a piano played by the vivid Benjamin Elliott who arranged the music composed by John Murphy and Anthony Pavlic.
the added songs fit seamlessly highlighting the deeper themes and packing an emotional wallop

As with many plays of old – the first half is a lot of setup and introduction of themes and players. Thus some of the early songs delay rather than enhance and a few jokes don’t land as intended, such as when Pompey steals the underwear right out of elder statesman Escalus’s pants.

When the action starts the plot deepens and then the added songs fit seamlessly highlighting the deeper themes and packing an emotional wallop.

The actors rise to the challenging material and the unique staging with aplomb. Standouts include Colleen Wheeler who doesn’t really appear until act two as a jilted love of Angelo and Anton Lipovetsky makes Lucio sketchy and opportunistic with a charm that entices.

But the play rests with the three main characters on the drama side of this ‘comedy’. Andrew Wheeler is the anchor; his character is apparently the biggest in the Shakespearean canon and it is also the one that has the biggest philosophical angst. He also brilliantly marries the drama to the comedy in the end beats of the piece.

David MacKay also plumbs the conflicted judge – consumed by righteousness and desire. As he dead-eyes stares at Isabella you see his whole body shudder awake when she lays her hand on his arm. The self-hatred Angelo has is tragic and his arguments for punishment are so convincing you almost agree with him. He also straddles the comic denouncement with gravitas and whimsy rooted in truth.
Sereana Malani is stunning as Isabella. Simple and devout the young nun is buffeted about when she learns her brother is to be hanged and then how she could surrender her virginity to save him. Later in the play / musical when she faces her own temptation the passion she brings to the bluesy “I Never Loved No Man” is palatable.

The stakes jump through the roof in Act Two and all of the songs sync beautifully to the text. Measure for Measure reveals itself as Mr. Murphy says it best  “a comedy with dark dramatic overtones – resulting in a remarkably modern feeling play.”

It’s a playful twisted adventure of want and order with some great songs and delicious acting and a bold production.

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