‘Measure for Measure’ at The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

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As one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” which is neither comedy nor tragedy, Measure for Measure is populated by morally ambiguous characters and includes a story that ends well… for some? Measure for Measure walks an awkward line between bawdy comedy and disturbing political commentary. In centuries past, this ambivalence made it one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays, but in our complex, morally relativist postmodern era, the play has experienced resurgence on American stages.

 Shaina Higgins and Chelsea Blackwell. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.
Shaina Higgins and Chelsea Blackwell. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

By setting it outdoors, Director Tom Delise has brought a little of Shakespeare’s original Elizabethan charm to this story of a corrupt municipal leader, Angelo (Alex Smith) who preaches puritanical morality even while he attempts to seduce an aspiring nun, Isabella (Erin Wagner). The Evergreen Museum at Johns Hopkins provides a backdrop of imposing Corinthian columns; the “stage” is encircled by a ring of bug-blasting Tiki torches, and presented in-the-round. Together with traditional Shakespearean costuming by April Forrer, BSF’s Measure for Measure creates an atmosphere of Renaissance authenticity. For one night, at least, the spirit of the Globe came to Baltimore.

Other Shakespearean conventions included actors playing multiple roles, frequent cross-gender casting, and the ample inclusion of song (although in this production, the music was more Madonna than pipe and lute). The addition of music, as Shakespeare intended, added a rich and unexpected texture to Measure. Although the vocal quality of the cast was below what one would expect from a bona fide musical, this was actually somewhat endearing given the outdoor, folk-festival vibe. Solid percussion by Christopher Ryder and lively guitar by Jamie Horrell (who also music directed) contributed to the poignant soundscape.

More problematic for me was the cross-gender casting, and I question the artistic choice for it. Cross-gender casting is effective in many Shakespearean plays, but only if there is a compelling reason to do so, and this decision detracted from the veracity and emotional impact of the play. That being said, a number of female actors in the show deserve high praise for skillfully navigating their male characters, like Valerie Dowdle (Duke Vincentio) and Barbara Madison Hauck (Lucio).

Overall, the cast was effective at using clear vocalization and strong physical choices to clearly communicate the language of Shakespeare. Although the classic pelvic thrust was perhaps overused, the physicality was consistently engaging, important given the absence of traditional design elements. Mr. Delise carefully staged the piece so that no one side of the in-the-round audience was favored or ignored. He utilized a multitude of angles and sight lines to create stage pictures that were various, interesting, and often beautiful in their symmetry.

The aforementioned Ms. Hauck shines as the knavish Lucio, and Chelsea Blackwell gives a committed performance as the clownish pimp, Pompey. Alex Smith, as the hypocritical Angelo, and Erin Wagner, as the holy Isabella, give undeniably solid performances. However, given the extreme stakes in the play – Isabella is asked to give up her chastity in order to save the life of her condemned brother, Claudio – I couldn’t help but crave more depth and feeling from the play’s two unlikely love interests.

The cast of 'Measure for Measure': Jamie Horrell, Chelsea Blackwell, Lee Conderacci, Erin Wagner, Shaina Higgins, Joel Ottenheimer, Valerie Sedai, Alex Smith, Ben Fisler, Barbara Madison Hauck, Alanna Pasquale and Christopher Ryde. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.
The cast of ‘Measure for Measure’: Jamie Horrell, Chelsea Blackwell, Lee Conderacci, Erin Wagner, Shaina Higgins, Joel Ottenheimer, Valerie Sedai, Alex Smith, Ben Fisler, Barbara Madison Hauck, Alanna Pasquale, and Christopher Ryde. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Measure for Measure is a strange play, even by Shakespearean standards. But there is no denying the issues dealt with in the text, like hypocrisy, sexual policing and the desire for power, are as relevant today as they were four centuries ago.

The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory does Measure for Measure justice by restoring it to its outdoor setting and livening up the text with contemporary music and some compelling performances. Somewhere beyond the stars, the Bard himself may be smiling.

Running Time: Two hours, with a fifteen-minute intermission.

Measure for Measure plays through August 17, 2014 at The Evergreen Museum and Library – 4545 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. It plays on August 17 and 29 at Boordy Vineyard, and August 23-24 at St. Mary’s Community Center. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 921-9455, or purchase them online.