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“Measure for Measure” at Marin Shakespeare Company

“Measure for Measure” at Marin Shakespeare Company

Carol Benet

Sometimes the most obscure Shakespeare plays become the most relevant today.  That is the case with “Measure for Measure” at Marin Shakespeare Company.  Seldom produced because the playwright had a “confusion of purpose”, according to scholar G.B. Harrison, yet it fits right into the debate about several current issues.  

The story is about the Duke Vincentio (Patrick Russell) who takes leave and places Angelo (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) in charge.  Both want to reform the corrupt Venetian society, but Angelo is more adamant in closing the bordellos and punishing the whores and other wayward citizens.  Even Claudio (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) is arrested and sentenced to death because he has impregnated his fiancée.  

Constable Elbow (Neil Thollanderj) warns the owner of a bordello Mistress Overdone (Isabelle Grimm) and her tapster Pompey (Ed Berkeley) and makes it clear that the rulers want all this debauchery cleaned up. As for the Claudio plot, Lucio (Ariel Zuckerman) convinces Isabella (Luisa Frasconi) into going to Angelo to ask for her brother’s pardon.  The chaste and pious Isabella, who is already in some kind of nun’s habit because she is about to enter a nunnery,  goes  to Angelo and begs his forgiveness.  But the licentious Angelo wants to make a deal, a “Measure for Measure” saying she would have to sleep with him and then he will release Claudio from his death sentence.  A lively scene follows that is reminiscent of descriptions of Harvey Weinstein chasing his victims around his office. Isabella states, “To whom should I complain?  Who would believe me?”

This is just one of the references to today’s injustices.  Brutal incarceration, hypocrisy of the rulers, power grabs, questions of justice and harsh punishment underlie the basic question here, one that is impossible to answer even after this play. The question posed is: “The tempter or the tempted, who sinned most”?  Shakespeare does not answer many of the propositions that he raises in “Measure for Measure”.  He left it up to you to decide.

The set (Joel Eis) is realistic when it replicates the towers at San Quentina. The prison episodes, especially when Claudio is in his cell furnished only with a toilet, are most successful.  So are the sounds (Billie Cox) of cell doors slamming in the background. The idea of San Quentin is everywhere and especially apt  since the Marin Shakespeare Leslie  has a developed a Social Justice Program with prison education in 13 facilities in the state plus other outreach programs such as those for at-risk youth.  A former San Quentin inmate, LeMar “Maverick” Harrison, performs  the role of Froth in this play and his rap is part of the pre-play and intermission sound on the microphones.

Escalus (Steven Price), in the service of Angelo, tries to be reasonable in all this reform. Side stories pop up.  One is about the hypocrite reformer Angelo and his previous legally binding engagement to Mariana (Isabelle Grimm) that fell apart when her  dowry went down in a shipwreck.  And while the Duke disguises himself as a friar in order to observe the mayhem that ensues after his official departure, he falls in love with Isabella. Director Robert S. Currier takes several liberties with the Shakespeare play and makes the ending purely “Me-Too”.  It is hocky at times but always fun in the lovely outdoor theater where the audience may purchase dinner or bring their own food.

“Measure for Measure” at Marin Shakespeare plays through July 21, 2019 in the Forest Meadows Amphitheater on the campus of Dominican University of California, 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael.  marinshakespeare.org or 415 499 4488.

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