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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Measure for Measure’

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I like a noble experiment. In that regard, I like the new Fresno State production of “Measure for Measure.” It’s adventurous, daring, slick, striking and all of those other brilliantly theatrical adjectives that you’d normally associate with director Brad Myers.

Yet for all its style, this production ultimately just isn’t the charged experience it should be. It feels stilted and overdone. From the overwrought production design — costumes that are gaudy for the sake of gaudiness, a cold-as-mausoleum set that seems totally anithetical to the play’s gritty contemporary premise, lights that dapple because they can — to the director’s concept of a punked-out 1980s Eastern Bloc Communist setting, there’s a lot of fuss going on up there on stage, but not enough humanity. The student actors are more overwhelmed than supported, and the truncated text leaves some of the story in the dust.

I’ve seen “Measure for Measure” several times and read the play, although years ago, and I found myself stumbling with the plot when watching this production’s Sunday matinee, especially when it comes to the intricacies of deceitful impersonations and mistaken bedfellows that Shakespeare unleashes in the final acts. (The show continues 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.)

The play opens with a defiant display of depravity as colorfully clad prostitutes — taunting and giddy, clearly used to free reign — work the streets. In this “Vienna,” Eastern Bloc grimness and totalitarian micromanagement is the rule of the day, at least on paper. The strict moral laws of the city have been ignored, however. Sexual diseases are rampant. That’s presumably one reason that the Duke (James Taylor) temporarily gives up his office and hands power over to the strict Angelo (Matthew McGee), a judge who stands for high principles but who, like many “moral” politicians, has a few secrets of his own.

Angelo decides to demonstrate the new strictness by making an example of a local ruffian, Claudio (a strong and effective Adam Schroeder), a typical hardened city dweller (frizzed out blue bangs, tatooed arms, leather pants), who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant. The penalty, Angelo declares, is death.

Claudio’s sister, a nun named Isabella (Brandi Martin) is distraught, of course. When she comes to plead her brother’s case with the judge, Angelo is smitten. What follows is a web of mistaken identities and sexual coercion — not in the flighty, happy-lovers fashion that you’d normally associate with one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but with more of a menacing, deceitful tone — and lots of choice moments when the completely unrecognized Friar (only in Shakespeare!) wanders the city and takes notes on the fumbling transgressions of his less-than-stalwart subjects.

I understand why Myers chose the ’80s Eastern Bloc theme. The contrast between the menacing, puritanical bureaucracy and the promiscuity of the people is intriguing. The way Shakespeare sets it up, we get to see these two worlds collide. Through the Duke’s eyes we see the hypocrisy of the state.

But the production’s design fights Myers’ directorial concept all the way. Jeff Hunter’s massive, sterile and severely symmetrical set, with its various vaultlike swinging doors, feels more like a classical bank lobby than a writhing, conflicted city. Izzy Einsidler’s lighting design offers sophisticated mood changes but verges on the showy. Elizabeth R. Payne’s costumes, brandished in a rainbow array of bright, form-fitting colors and extravagant accents, have a too-cheery impact, as if they’ve been upgraded to chic fashion statements.

And the actual storyline of the play, as I’ve said, gets a little lost, at least for me, in the midst of all this spectacle. I completely missed at first the plot thread involving Mariana (Emily Cobb) and her attempt to catch Angelo as a husband.

Matthew McGee, who plays the rigid Angelo, is a standout among the large cast. It’s certainly a breakout Fresno State performance for him. His character could have been a mere cardboard figure of fake piety, but there’s truly something interesting going on with his portrayal.

Other strong performances include Jordan Roberts as the swaggering and buffoonish Lucio, Megan Gilmore as the ribald madam, and Albert Bonilla as the provocative Pompey. Strutting around on huge heels and wearing tight pants so vividly green that they practically glow, Bonilla does what some of the other leading characters in this play don’t: projects a strong, vibrant, emphatic stage presence.

With all this said, there’s still a lot to digest and contemplate with this carefully crafted and meticulously prepared version of “Measure for Measure.” Some scholars describe it as one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, and the label doesn’t just refer to the uneasy way it blends comic moments with bleakness. (Even the ending, while technically “happy,” has a vaguely sour impact.)

The “problem” also refers to such social and philosophical issues as mercy, forgiveness, willful misrepresentation, hypocrisy and the always juicy topic of government legislation of morality. With today’s headlines practically stuffed with such fodder, it’s clear that however you measure it, Shakespeare still makes you think.

Photo: At left, James Taylor, and the group is clockwise from left, Ryan Anders, Matthew Freitas, Kelsey Oliver , Nicolette Chavez, Alyson Polian. MARK CROSSE/THE FRESNO BEE

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Measure for Measure’"

Joseph says:

Wow! I gotta admit, I think you really missed the boat on this one. I remember you heaping praise on the recent WSF HAMLET and Fresno State’s 2007 production of MACBETH; both of which, to me, were convoluted exercises in directorial self-indulgence. Now, this very clear and imaginative production comes along and you lambaste it in every conceivable way. I can’t recall a local Shakespearean production where the language was so clear, and the story laid out with such precision. I too know this play very well, and I thought the cutting worked, emphasizing the Isabella/Angelo story line and paring away much of the cumbersome archaic humor. The Mariana story line was as clear as could be for me, being introduced by the Duke at the end of the first part. I checked the script and the director or dramaturg cut very little of the Mariana story from the original script. This director is developing quite a fine reputation for his handling of ensembles (THE LARAMIE PROJECT, URINETOWN) and this production was no exception. The set was powerful and I loved how it efficiently transitioned from office, to whorehouse, to prison. The actors found a beautiful balance between the language and the emotions. The more soulful characters of Isabella and the Duke really engaged me, whereas you seemed to be more engaged by the soulless, more raunchy characters.
I totally disagree with your opinion that most of these actors lacked stage presence, a comment which seemed a tad mean to generally throw at a whole lot of student actors. I saw the show with a large house on Tuesday evening composed mostly of university students. During intermission I constantly heard audience members talking about how excited they were that they actually understood a Shakespearean play. I don’t know if someone in the Fresno State Theatre Department has offended you, but you seem alarmingly effusive in your condemnation of this wonderful production. I can’t help but notice that your reviews grew progressively more harsh as you worked your way through the four productions you saw this weekend. I only saw the FCC production which was enjoyable, but no where near the degree of difficulty that was taken on by Fresno State. This is the caliber of Shakespeare that I have been hoping to see at WSF.

Bogdan says:

What’s wrong with
“bright, form-fitting colors and extravagant accents” or “too-cheery”
costumes in a comedy?
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the CSUF production is that it doesn’t suffocate the comedic spirit with a Snideley Whiplash villain and heavy-handed moralizing. The “problem” of this play is that too many productions, like critics, are no fun.

jamie says:

go see this production!! mr. munro seems stuck in an ivory tower of reverence towards shakespeare, and the earlier poster is exactly right in wondering how he could praise the directorial self indulgence of WSF’s hamlet and criticize this. it is a concept. and it works. Myers here gets to the essence of the text and tells the story pretty coherently. he drops some plot elements, but Shakespeare has too much going on here and his cutting is judicious and clarifies rather than obscures. the designs are a little over the top, but that is almost always the case at fresno state. the actors spoke the verse well and the ensemble work was stunning. this was the best thing i’ve seen in fresno since urinetown. and that was also directed by myers. coincidence? i dont think so.

avc says:

I have a hard time finding a single complaint about Measure for Measure at CSUF. The sets and costuming provided a perfectly believable backdrop for the timeless and clearly presented themes of the story. The student actors (and others) showed skill beyond their years in their delivery and timing of the Shakespearean text. The only problem I had was remembering how to get to the John Wright Theater.

cc says:

I thought the acting of many of the main characters was indeed quite impressive, they did have a strong grip on the material. Yet some of the other cast did seem to fall short of complete comprehension of the text. And yes, some of the stage presence of the other actors was overshadowed by the strength of actors like James Taylor, Matthew McGee, Brandi Martin and Adam Schroeder. The set design is gorgeous, but I failed to see a clear match with it and the “time period” of the 80′s. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but it didn’t quite match to me. The direction was very impressive, as always with Myers. One thing that did bother me at the Tuesday performance was, in some, not all, cases, the ensemble failed to be invested in the outcome of the characters around them, especially nearing the end. Only a few actors really gave a sense that what was unfolding before them was surprising in the least. It almost seemed like it was a normal day to them, which it completely should not seem like. Which is surprising knowing Myer’s ability to really coordinate large casts as Joseph mentioned.

Ben says:

I thought the show was good. What the heck is Munro talking about? Yes, the set sucked, I’ll give him that, but the lights were terrific! The costumes were pretty cool too- The acting was, well, student acting and was OK. Chill out Munro!