Shakespeare’s “problem play,” his “farewell to comedy?” Only if we can’t laugh at ourselves (and some of us, apparently, can’t). The comedic moments in this gem from Marin Shakespeare don’t come thick and fast, and when they arrive the laughter is more in the line of an introspective chuckle, than laugh-out-loud.
Not because of the stagecraft and Robert Currier’s direction, which are uncomfortably spot-on. Shakespeare’s acerbic wit couched in his impeccable dialog about the miscarriage of justice in the hands of a self-absorbed, clueless tyrant. Set in twenty-first century Bay Area, this Measure for Measure shows the bard for the prescient genius of things to come, for envisioning a world as true in our day as it was in his own.
We see violent injustice invoked for the most innocent of crimes (death penalty for premarital sex) by a self-righteous dictator who overlooks his own guilt, and wields his unearned power without mercy to satisfy his own desires. “It is the law—not I—who condemns you.” Sound familiar?
Thought it might. So did director Robert Currier, who sees the summer of 2019—the third year of the Trump presidency—as the perfect time to air some of the bard’s most pungent dialogue. Much of it comes from the gravely put-upon Isabella, novitiate and sister to the condemned man, rebuffing the overtures of this man who would be king, the Pence-like Angelo.
“But man, proud man, dress’d in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d—plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as makes the angels weep.” She sees right through him. “I know your virtue hath a license in’t, which seems a little fouler than it is, to pluck on others.”
Jackson Currier’s set exteriors are derived in form and color from the walls of San Quentin. The production is infused with cultural references taken straight from today’s media. The costumes, from the straight-laced business suits of the principals to the uniforms of the guards and wardens to the habits of the nuns and the frocks of the friars, all hit the mark.
Outstanding performances from Joseph Patrick O’Malley (Angelo), Pompey (Ed Berkeley), and Luisa Frasconi (Isabella) lead a host of other notable performances.
So if you are looking for a little light comedy, this is probably not the place to find it. But if you want to see how Shakespeare’s words continue to be relevant today, and give us insight into what we have allowed, and what we want to change—to come and laugh a little, and go home thinking.
Performances: Fridays, Saturdays, Sunday Matinees through July 21.
At: Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Ave, San Rafael CA 94901
Box Office: 415.499.4488 or https://www.marinshakespeare.org/tickets/
Review by David Hirzel
P.S. Note to those who cannot refrain from leaving your phone ringer on, so that you will know when texts come in so you can answer them right away: STAY HOME. Or if you can’t please give the performers and the audience the courtesy of sitting in the rear, and NOT in the front row. You know who you are.