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