Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Measure for Measure

What are the appropriate boundaries of governmental power, and how can citizens fight back when such limits are overstepped?

If you have the ability to help a fellow citizen, but doing so compromises your moral or religious beliefs, are you obligated to act?

How far should outdated laws be prosecuted before inhibiting the free expression of the people?

If I were to ask such questions, you might think I was preparing a letter to a newspaper's op-ed page.

And therein lies the proof that Shakespeare's works can be as current and topical as they are timeless, for these issues are faced by the characters in the UC Davis theater and dance department production of 'Measure for Measure.'

While many of this play's elements - notably bedroom mix-ups and stock comedic characters - have caused it to be listed as a comedy, 'Measure for Measure' has very little 'comedic' about it (and this production has very few laughs), and thus it has been called one of the bard's 'problem plays.'

The plot centers on Angelo (Jesse Merz), empowered by the Duke of Vienna (Timothy Orr) to rule the citizenry in his absence, with the assistance of Escalus (Sarah Cohen). While all believe the Duke is taking a brief sabbatical, he actually uses this opportunity to disguise himself as a friar, and then wander about the city and personally observe the extent of its moral decay.

Angelo, who today would be classified as an extreme fundamentalist, decides to use his temporary powers to enforce an archaic law against fornication; he begins shutting down bawdy houses and putting fornicators to death. One of these fornicators is Claudio (Daniel Reano-Koven), a young man who has impregnated his fiancee.

Claudio's sister, Isabella (Gia Battista), a novice in a convent, is made aware of her brother's plight; she comes to plead for his life.

On seeing Isabella, Angelo - like so many modern-day zealots with feet of clay - falls in immediate lust with her, and attempts to blackmail her into his bed. The choice is her virtue or Claudio's life, Angelo tells her, knowing that even if she were to report him, nobody would believe her.

But the Duke is made aware of the plot, and he hatches a scheme of his own to save Isabella's virtue and reveal Angelo's duplicity.

A parallel comic storyline follows the banter among a 'flamboyant bachelor,' Lucio (Kevin Ganger); the brothel owner, Mistress Overdone (Cody Messick); and her employee, Pompey (Stephanie Hankinson).

Eventually, the good get their reward, and the bad their just desserts: All's well that ends well.

Director Randy Symank has mounted a strong production. The play is set in modern dress: so modern that the sex workers - Maryanne Reveles, Tracy Kutt, Karen Askeland and Kelly Fleischmann - wear tight, skimpy black dresses and wigs of electric fuschia, blue, green and copper.

The performances are excellent across the board, with Orr and Battista rising above the rest. Orr gives the Duke a likable, accessible demeanor; Battista brings a glowing 'goodness' to her character. Her passionate argument with Angelo is particularly moving.

On a lesser note, someone decided to add music to the production, for reasons I cannot fathom. Isaac Blackstock is credited with 'electric music composition,' and Rich Gaarde as music director and arranger, with vocals performed by Allison Minick and Isaac Blackstock. While nothing is wrong with the music, it feels gratuitous and out of place; it also adds nothing but extra minutes to the overall production.

I didn't mind the dancing so much - choreography by Hope Mirlis - but the 'Let's take a break here, and sing lyrics that aren't Shakespeare's words, which the audience can't understand anyway' parts easily could have been dropped.

'Measure for Measure' points a finger at hypocrisy, corruption and human frailty: sadly, all themes that seem much too applicable to today's political climate, and which make this Shakespeare classic all the more appropriate for a university production.

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