By: Anita W. Harris
In a world of vice, does virtue stand a chance? That is the central question deftly explored in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, at the Richard Goad Theatre through March 18. Nuanced acting punctuated by moments of light humor result in a richly thoughtful theatrical experience.
In 16th-century Olde Vienna, licentiousness has gotten out of hand as brothels abound. We see such a “bawd-house” in a provocative pre-play scene of silhouetted ladies dancing behind a sheer curtain while “tapster” Pompey (Andy Kallok) uses humorous puns to soft sell the audience alcohol and the “wares” on display. It’s clearly high time for the Duke (Kyle McGruther) to clean up the city.
But just as a playwright would, the Duke does so by setting up a ruse, placing his Deputy Angelo (Jesse Seann Atkinson) and the astute Lady Deputy Escalus (Randi Tahara) in charge of the crackdown while he goes undercover as a friar to covertly test Angelo’s character. Soon enough, almost-nun Isabella (Amanda Swearingen) must plead with Angelo to spare the life of her brother Claudio (Alexander Williams), whom Angelo has sentenced to death for impregnating his fiancée, a capital offense in the new regime. But Isabella’s beauty and virtue arouse Angelo (the “virgin violator”) and he hypocritically offers Claudio’s life in exchange for her chastity. Can the Duke’s friar ploy possibly save Isabella from her moral quandary?
The women in this play are mostly powerless and must trade on their only asset, their bodies, made more valuable by a dowry or the veneer of virtue. Even noblewoman Mariana (Jessica Acuri), whom the Duke convinces to secretly sleep with Angelo in place of Isabella, had been earlier rejected by Angelo because of the loss of her dowry and subsequent slander against her virtue. In the games of “she said, he said” in this tale, ‘he’ always wins.
To play these compelling characters, Director Helen Borgers has cast a slew of actors well suited to their roles. Kyle McGruther portrays the wily friar shiftily before re-emerging with believable bearing as the Duke. Jesse Seann Atkinson is convincingly smarmy and arrogant as cold-hearted yet darkly smitten Angelo. Amanda Swearingen shines as righteously virtuous Isabella. As Lady Escalus, Randi Tahara’s clear voice and upright bearing suit her character’s sound judgments. Of the minor characters, Megan Lennon as the Provost and Jessica Acuri as Mariana are especially unaffected on stage, carrying their roles with ease and humanness.
In the more humorous roles, the delightful Emily Hansen stands out– as a friar but especially as the memorable Constable Elbow, in whom Hansen immerses herself unreservedly, with a country sheriff twang. The scene in which Elbow arrests Pompey (Kallok)– reminiscent of a dry Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski– is well-choreographed comedy. Sarah Hoeven as brothel-owner Mistress Overdone vividly emotes through facial expressions, as does Ketty Citterio through physical exaggeration as drunkard Barnadine (and also briefly as a nun who hasn’t seen a man in a while).
Most of the cast deliver their Shakespearian dialogue articulately and naturally. Monologues are addressed directly to the audience, which works well in the intimacy of the Richard Goad Theatre and heightens our emotional connection to the story. Costumes by Ramzi Jneid are simply fitting, with Isabella in white for most of the play, reinforcing her chasteness. Her demure head covering and Mariana’s sheer veil are also echoed by the curtain used to evoke a brothel, including the pre-play scene that both displays and hides the women dancing to Edmund Velasco’s hypnotic percussion.
This production of Measure for Measure is an entertaining rendition of an ethically interesting play. Its story of a leader who attempts to contain the abuse of authority and unnecessary persecution, and restore balance to power, is certainly an inspiring one for our time.
Measure for Measure continues at the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through March 18, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $12.50-$22.50. For reservations and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.