It’s rare to see Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure presented as a laugh-out-loud comedy. But Director Robert Currier of Marin Shakespeare Company has done just that, turning this dark and complex drama into a commentary on today’s charged issues of sexual misbehavior and the inequities of the prison system. Currier and his cast deftly handled the darkness with a light and comic touch. The result was a delight.
The play spends equal time on both mores and injustice. Originally set in Vienna, the action begins when its ruler, Duke Vincentio, decides to take a prolonged leave of absence and puts matters of state in the hands of a strict and prudish judge, Angelo. What Angelo doesn’t know is that Vincentio is merely going undercover to check on the state of his country.
Angelo, a sinkhole of repressed sexuality, immediately closes all the brothels and re-institutes laws of chastity. Death is the penalty for pre-marital sex. And death is the sentence young Claudio receives for impregnating his willing and beloved fiancée Juliet. But when Claudio’s sister, the beautiful and chaste Isabella, comes to plead for his life, Angelo falls prey to his own loosened desires. Power, he-who-will-not-be-named once said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. And Angelo falls before his newly invested power and the young novice asking for mercy for her brother.
For a number of years Marin Shakespeare has brought their theatrical expertise to the California prisons, teaching and directing inmates in stagecraft and productions. This year their prisons program has expanded to 13 California prisons. As Currier comments, “We see up close and personal the pain and ‘high rancidity’ of our social justice system.” Measure for Measure provides an opportunity to turn a light on these issues, and the production is set in San Quentin and the governor’s office; the time is now.
Pungent references to contemporary justice run throughout. Claudio sports an orange jumpsuit, and at crucial moments in the dialog the nuns of Isabella’s convent-to-be parade across the stage carrying protest signs: Prisons Are the New Slavery reads one. Rap songs about social justice and the prison system by Maverick Harrison served as interludes in the action, and Harrison also played the executioner Abhorson and the disreputable Froth.
As Angelo, Joseph Patrick O’Malley was as creepy as Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings. Patrick Russell lightened his role of Vincentio by playing him as a high-manic executive and, in his disguise as Friar Lodvic, as a good-natured but rather buffoonish naif. Brennan Pickman-Thoon is earnest as the dull Claudio. And Luisa Frasconi was a warmer-than-usual Isabella. When Vincentio proposes to her at play’s end, you can see the thought “Not Another One” trudge across her brow.
Although the severe and misguided flailings of the high-comedy characters allow playwright and audience a shared joke, it is the low-comedy characters’ antics that create hilarity. Ed Berkeley, with his big voice and deadpan delivery, brilliantly realizes the baud Pompey. And Isabelle Grimm delivers a wackily strident Mistress Overdone in her black stretch pants, leopard-skin top and red accessories. (Costumes were by Tammy Berlin.) Neill Thollander does double-duty as the calisthenic constable Elbow and the bearded prisoner Barnadine.
It’s not so difficult to transform Shakespeare into a different time and place, so timeless are his themes and so generously humane his understanding of our desires and mishaps. But it’s not so easy to make Measure for Measure with its deeply troubling portrayals of misogyny and the misuses of power into an airy and entertaining presentation. Marin Shakespeare has succeeded in this and done so with charm and vigor. Points taken.
Marin Shakespeare Company’s Measure for Measurecontinues through July 21 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre on the campus of the Dominican University of California in San Rafael. For information and tickets, visit marinshakespeare.org.