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Measure for Measure
Although traditionally set in Vienna, apparently known to Shakespeare as the sin city of the western world, director Jack Wetherall would like to show us how easily the play's consideration of societal corruption and personal retribution suits the post-Civil War American West. Certainly his idea of a rowdy, if not quite totally lawless town somewhere in New Mexico circa 1880 can stand up to any place when it comes to sin. With a few gun shots fired for the usual reasons in the old west and an opening dance performed by the local denizens who regularly partake in the pleasures afforded by the local establishment of questionable repute, things get off to a promising start. It is an early sign that the pimps, bawds and brawlers on view are the same familiar ones known to Shakespeare and to the world over.
Wetherall, who is making his Shakespeare Theater debut, has built a reputation as both a director and actor at Ontario's Stratford Festival. His vision is specific and certainly not obscured or overwhelmed by designer Marion Williams's minimalist unit set. The walls and the slightly raked stage offer nothing more visual than their being unadorned blonde wood. A few pieces of carry on and off furniture are gratefully received. It is up to costume designer Clint Ramos to dress things up a bit with an amusing array of eclectic late 19th century western attire. Although Wetherall keeps all references, and there are many, to Vienna in the script, this decision is a trifle disconcerting as we attempt to make the leap to America's western province. Is there a Vienna in New Mexico? Nevertheless, our attention is drawn to the questionable activities of Angelo (Michael Milligan), a high-minded deputy in the service of the Duke or Governor in this case (David Manis). Angelo is trying to reinstate antiquated statutes in order to reform a city where " liberty plucks justice by the nose." We have seen from the start that this open city is a heady center for rash political maneuvers and sexual intrigue.
There is now a death penalty for fornication, with the first victim being the young and noble Claudio (Stephen Tyrone Williams). Though intent on marrying his fiancée- the beloved and very pregnant Juliet (Jo Williamson) — he is now guilty of a crime. And crimes of the heart multiply: Angelo lusts after Isabella (January Lavoy), a sister of Claudio about to enter a nunnery. The kindly Duke, in the guise of snooping Monk, becomes infatuated with Isabella. Add to this Angelo's jilted fiancée Mariana (Kristie Dale Sanders); Lucio (Wayne Meledandri), a blundering and obnoxious reporter; Mistress Overdone (Elizabeth Shepherd), a low-life Madame with an impenetrable accent; and a host of other foolish folk. Here you have another of Shakespeare's scrupulously convoluted but determinedly unconvincing and unfunny comedies.
It is fortunate that the role of Isabella is being portrayed with considerable passion and for all its rhetorical purity and sense of purpose by January Lavoy. Lavoy, who was in the recently lauded Off Broadway revival of August Wilson's Two Trains Running is in her first season at the Shakespeare Theater. She is splendid. It is a pity, however, that the other actors rarely rises above the perfunctory, particularly the men.
At first commendable enough in his soon-to-be-removed suit, as the Duke, Manis doesn't seem to be able to project any playfulness into his own impersonation and thus remains a rather dull provocateur. While Milligan, as Angelo, has the difficult task to be provocatively righteous, his rather dullish demeanor suggests only once, in a testy confrontation with Isabella, his willingness to go beyond where his words take him. As Claudio, Williams's wholesome good looks and perplexed expressions makes him a good candidate to survive the penalty of death.
There is nothing overdone by Shepherd, as Mistress Overdone. The same is true of Kristie Dale Sanders, as the jilted Mariana, and that perhaps is a pity. Thank goodness for Roderick Lapid, as the pimp Pompey. He makes one think of Puck, as he engagingly sprints about through the plotting with a distinct and guileless ability to either talk or squirm out of a predicament. Some of the minor characters deliver some spark to the proceedings: Scott McIntosh is funny as a prisoner who is too drunk to attend his own execution. At its most interesting, if you are inclined to work at it, you may be obliged to consider how wise or woebegone is Angelo's yes man Escalus (Raphael Nash Thompson); how truly saintly is the overtly virtuous Isabella, and how incomprehensibly duplicitous is just about everyone in this confounding play.
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The Little Mermaid
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Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide