at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare never tired having his lead characters dress up in disguises and hinging plot lines on the fallout of mistaken identity or secret observations. I, on the other hand, am weary of boys dressed as girls dressed as boys and kings posing as commoners acting kingly. Too silly. It doesn't help my enjoyment that most of these stories are comedies with deus ex machina happy endings.
Measure for Measure may be officially a "problem play" and not a comedy, but there are enough absurd happy touches for me to decide to pass on seeing more performances.
Except, this year Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production is directed by Bill Raush. Bill re-envisions tired plays, especially Shakespeare's too well acclaimed and too poorly re-imagined classics. So, I signed up for Measure for Measure, saw it opening night in February,... and saw it again Memorial Day weekend.
Bill has come through again. This fast, 1970's situated Measure has little to do with 400-year-old literature and everything to do with modern abuse of power, false morality, self-righteousness, and other Fox News staples. This is not a play created for the rarefied pleasure of the culture elite. In fact, this production isn't even work safe. The bawdy humor is not esoteric double entendre; it's downright obscene.
Bill's Measure is hot, alive, funny, fun, and dangerous.
Probably the most spectacular and objectively novel element of this production is the use of three female Mariachi artists throughout the play. Yes, Mariachi, and it works.
You remember in English class that the teacher promised you that in Shakespeare's day his plays were performed with musicians and artists wandering on stage and throughout the theater? The performances were reportedly all-day parties. But, if you ever were exposed to music and Shakespeare in the same class, all you ever heard was safe, delicate, and desultory Olde Englishe recorder music.
Raush has created a Latin-flavored story with several very pretty Latino actors (of both genders), and the inclusion of vibrant, expressive Mariachi music is tone-perfect for this production. The original Spanish-language songs move the story along both book-wise and emotionally. The musicians are mischievous, sexy, and fun!
The cast is truly composed of all stars. Praising one or two isn't fair.
Stephanie Beatriz (Isabela) plays her whole body while conveying ever so much with her eyes and face. She is strong and innocent simultaneously, the only way the character works. Beyond flawless.
Meanwhile Anthony Heald (Duke of Vienna) is completely right at every high, low, backtrack, and switch of the plot. The script changes the motivation and level of sincerity for the Duke quickly, especially toward the end. Heald hits each turn correctly, helping the audience track what's real and what's a put on meant to confuse other on-stage characters. I suspect the Duke's chatter is often Alzheimer-like ramblings or inexplicably random in many productions. Heald both energizes the Duke and guides the story as if it really made sense.
Ramiz Monsef (Pompey) is a stand out as the amoral, loose-tongued bawd. Madame Mistress Overdone was, in fact, done to drag-queen perfection by actor Cristofer Jean. René Millán (Angelo) was tormented and sleazy in believable and scary ways. Tony DeBruno (Provost) and Kenajuan Bentley (Lucio) and Frankie Alvarez (Claudio) and... and.. and... each amazing and wonderful.
Each production craft contributed to this great Measure. Everything meshed and complemented, and nothing jarred. The set design by Clint Ramos deserves special note because it was so plain and yet versatile and fitting. The stage starts off looking like the industrial cafeteria of ACT's 2007 production of Blackbird, but it grew to so much more. Sparse, changing, and flexible, especially with the action and video scenery visible through the center windows.
Raush raised the complicated story and complex play above the level of comedy or even comedy with problems. Raush provides a clear vision for all aspects of the stories he directs, and Measure is no exception. Given my weariness at sudden, out-of-the-blue happy endings, I especially appreciate how this production finishes. After maintaining her virtue against the powerful Angelo's entreaties for several acts, as the play closes the Duke proposes publicly to Isabela and offers her more worldly as his wife. Raush has Isabela step up to a microphone to respond, mug world-class looks of conflict, face the mike, and ... well, you'll have to see yourself!