First impressions : The trick in staging Measure for Measure for contemporary audiences is for the director to determine whether the show is more comic than mordant, more tittle than tattle, more to fun with or to preach. As adapted nearly wholesale by director John Murphy, there is not one scintilla of the tragic in any of it. His version exploits the script for every ounce of fun, sport & amusement Billy Bard imagined and then...a lot more ! Song, dance, mardi gras masques galore, horns, strings, drums, parades, a whole she-bang! of stuff dancing about studio stage. The crowd's eager laughter and clapping throughout prove this Murphy's law is quite unlike the usual "If anything can go wrong..." warning of the original.
Plot overview : 1603 Vienna is re-set by Murphy in 1903 New Orleans, in The District, a.k.a. Storyville. The Duke of Creole duchy wants the place cleaned up of its "bawds" -- WS's all-purpose word for brothels, pimps, prostitutes, johns, barkeeps, entertainers and anyone else even remotely infected by association with such venues. But the Duke lacks the fortitude to do it. Because for nearly two decades he's let rompery and debauchery prevail. So he fakes a sabbatical in friar's tucks and gives his oxymoronic deputy Angelo the job to do for him. This challenge Angelo undertakes with satanic alacrity. He sees Julietta about to give birth. He knows no banns were ever published by her betrothed Claudio. So under an age-old puritan law against fornication, he orders Claudio beheaded to make an example of him. Sister Isabella, a novitiate at a nearby convent, pleads with Angelo to spare her brother. Angelo agrees, on the condition Isabella sleep with him. Enter Friar/Duke once more. He plots with Isabella to have Angelo's former fiancee Mariana sleep with Angelo instead, thus saving Isabella's virtue and Claudio's life -- WS's popular "bed trick". Friar/Duke schemes yet another switcheroo in prison when he learns Angelo has reneged on the deal : Claudio is to lose his head anyway despite Angelo's midnight laydown with "Isabella" as previously agreed.
What happens, what doesn't : Dixieland music written by musical director Benjamin Elliott leaps out from Moment 1 of the production with a classic Bourbon Street funeral dirge plunked out on the ancient Mendelssohn Piano Co. upright by the Duke (Andrew Wheeler). Within a bar or two, bordello matron Mistress Overdone (Lois Anderson) belts out a torch song "Lady of the Night" and we know quite where this version of "tragicomedy" is headed. Fact is critics and academics often assail WS's Measure because the first act's set-up is viewed as largely tragic (the fall from grace of arch-Angelo), while act two slips more into a series of comic relief bits. In #M4M2013, it's all slapschtick from front-to-back, both vertical & horizontal mambo the reigning dance routine. Lots of nudge-nudge/wink-wink with the audience. Circus whistles. Cued mission bell chimes. Sight gags. Keystone cop chases. Pratfalls. The works. A host of cheapjack brothel denizens panting and slavering in dixie cadence.
Obviously Shakespeare purists ain't a-gonna get as smitten by all this madcap tomfoolery as both the BotB cast and the crowd obviously were. As noted in the Hamlet review -- judging by their robust enthusiasms -- the Vanier Park bunch generally will plump for more accessibility to Shakespeare's wordsmithery through imaginative staging than for faithfulness to 17th century Elizabethan manners, costumes and script. So that's what this crew provides. Tunefully. Effervescently. Splashily.
Character strengths : To try to isolate or rank excellence in performance in this year's Measure is a mug's game, for sure. As Duke/Friar, Andrew Wheeler flips back-&-forth between the slapsticky stuff but also gives off dukely airs in a more serious way. He does so capably and convincingly. The four comedians of the piece -- Lois Anderson as Mistress Overdone; Anton Lipovetsky as Lucio; David Marr as Pompey; Chris Cochrane as constable Elbow -- almost trip over one another in excellent turns. WS gave Lucio the biggest bit, and Lipovetsky nails it, but Marr as circus clown Pompey steals many a scene, except the ones Cochrane does. For her part Anderson is torchy and raunchy and humpy-manic line-after-line. And the more minor comic parts for Froth/Bernardine were executed bibulously by music man Elliott.
Though somewhat small a part for all its central-ness, Claudio (Luc Roderique) makes us believe. But it's sister Isabella (Sereana Malani) who is featured in the promo photos no doubt quite on purpose. Along with senior bureaucratic advisor Escalus (Bernard Cuffling), only those two characters are more traditional in their staging and delivery. Mr. Cuffling as always brings his "just right" mature style and sonorous delivery to each of his lines. For her part, Malani was word-perfect, to this ear, in every soliloquy, every importuning plea to Angelo (David Mackay). I would see Measure again to hear her words and watch her deliver them, passionately, alone. Mackay, meanwhile, was solid and consistent in portraying Angelo's hypocrisy and duplicity.
Production values : Again it's difficult to weight the praise. Scenic designer Drew Facey makes the most of the studio stage potential with its New Orleans grillwork doubling as prison bars plus the three trapdoors to the jail's bowels. Costume designer Mara Gottler excels particularly with Mistress Overdone's garish but sumptuous get-up. Lucio's suit-&-spats and cane were spot-on, while the mardi gras parade costumes and masques on the musicians were clever beyond description. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg delivers many crisp flings and jumps and pirouettes to add to the fun. In the end, however, it has to be Benjamin Elliott's original N'awlins ersatz music -- kind of Jacques Brel meets Buena Vista Social Club meets Tennessee Ernie Ford meets the Dukes of Dixieland. His playful tunes and soft ballads punctuate and best capture the cachet of John Murphy's adaptation of WS's Measure. One wee caveat : all the faux Southern accents were, well, not only contrived and irregular in delivery, were also quite unnecessary as Malani's accent-less excellence proved.
Who gonna like, who not so much : As noted, period piece prefer-ers will not enthuse. But that's not what Studio Stage is all about. For the rest, there's lots to amuse visually and much BillyB language precision and Elliott-music to tickle the eardrums.
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