Samantha Dressel (Chapman University)
Ten minutes before the scheduled start time, Pompey ushered us into the small Goad Theater: “Welcome to Mistress Overdone’s House of Repute! Or perhaps ill-repute…” He continued with a non-Shakespearean soliloquy, tempting the theater patrons with other pleasures. On the small stage, barely larger than the six rows of audience seating, a woman danced voluptuously behind a curtain, lit from behind. The pre-show continued, mixing belly-dancing with a simulated sexual tableau of shadows frozen in position while other shadowy women stretched sensuously. Two more women sat indolently on the side of the stage, tapping on drum and finger cymbals.
So began the Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s production of Measure for Measure, unsettling audience members who expected Shakespeare, not a whorehouse. This push for audience discomfort was the great strength of this production, under the direction of Helen Borgers, and it was largely effective, reminding the audience that the Renaissance classification of comedy does not necessarily involve constant laughter or reassurance. Indeed, the production chose to cut many of the scenes with low characters – perhaps a shame given the excellent performance of Elbow by Emily Hansen. Elbow’s hickish accent, exaggerated swagger, and fierce glares ensured that Hansen stole all of her scenes. Abhorsen, played by the petite Ruby Morales and toting an axe a full foot taller than she, adds similar moments of brief physical comedy. However, the production makes up for these ladies’ abbreviated roles by forcing the audience to actively confront the problematic uses of male power and dominance.
The production gains momentum when Isabella (Amanda Swearingen) appeals to Angelo (Jesse Seann Atkinson) for her brother Claudio’s life. Swearingen plays a dichotomous Isabella throughout the play, beginning her scenes reservedly and modestly, but giving into emotional outbursts. In IV.iii upon learning of Claudio’s supposed execution, Isabella’s response, “I will to him and pluck out his eyes!” rings out, evoking the fierceness with which Swearingen approaches her other breaches in decorum. Atkinson’s Angelo likewise begins the scene coldly, with his internal struggle becoming more apparent. A strange distraction in this scene was Lucio, played by Brian Caelleigh. Caelleigh’s portrayal throughout was delightfully dissolute, but Lucio’s peanut gallery asides continually diffused the emotional intensity between Swearingen and Atkinson. The strange tension of these interruptions indeed fit with the production’s focus on uncomfortable moments, but cut against the scene’s power. Following Lucio and Isabella’s exit, Atkinson’s portrayal of Angelo took flight. In his soliloquy, Atkinson was fiery, portraying a deep self-loathing. Atkinson took advantage of the small space, standing a mere foot from the first row of chairs and looking intensely into the eyes of the audience.
The tension between Atkinson and Swearingen increases in the following scene, when Angelo propositions Isabella, creepily sniffing her veiled hair. Initially, Swearingen’s fierce Isabella is on the offensive, pushing her Angelo stage right as she berates him for presumption. Once Atkinson’s Angelo recognizes his social advantage, however, he forces her back stage left. He speaks his words sneeringly, mocking her as he asks, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” Again, the actors use the small stage to great advantage, as Atkinson forces Swearingen against the wall and looms over her, his solid frame dominating her petite one physically, mirroring his verbal abuse.
In his portrayal of the Duke, Kyle McGrunther continues the theme of discomfort. In one of his earliest scenes as the Friar, he spies on Isabella and Claudio in prison from the wings, peeping through a curtain with only face and hand revealed. He continues to revel in the uncomfortable possibilities of his disguise, often playing off Lucio’s ignorance of his identity in some of the play’s only remaining comic moments. Caelleigh’s effusive mannerisms clearly madden McGrunther’s Duke – every time Lucio slaps the Friar’s back or plucks at his arm, McGrunther pulls winces at the audience. Such physical comedy enhances the possibilities of the already-comic scene in which Lucio informs the Friar of his close knowledge of the Duke. These comic moments are far more effective than Lucio’s earlier scene, creating comedy through uneasy dramatic irony as well as through the discomfort McGrunther expresses at Lucio’s physicality.
The dramatic irony of the disguised, inscrutable Duke is drawn out to its furthest limits in the play’s final scene. With little comedy to break the mood, Isabella’s and Mariana’s distress brings a nearly-physical discomfort to the audience. I, and I’m sure others, stifled the impulse to yell to the women, “It’s alright, he is the Friar!” Throughout the scene, the erstwhile Friar sneaks glances at the audience, drawing them into sordid complicity with his cruel trickery. This experience mirrors the discomfort of the preshow: we audience members never wanted to be in a whorehouse despite Pompey’s assumptions, and similarly, we did not ask to be party to the Duke’s viciously drawn-out plot. As one would expect from the rest of the production, the end of the play brings little satisfaction. Though she seems genuinely distressed later at Angelo’s death sentence, Mariana (Jessica Acuri) reacts to her sudden marriage with a facial expression that could either express excitement or disgust. Similarly, the production adheres to a distressing end for Isabella, with Swearingen reacting in horrified silence to the Duke’s proposal. The ending is technically comic in its marriages, but the women’s consent remains dubious, forcing a recognition of male power and prerogative as the lights dim.
The Long Beach Theater Company’s Measure for Measure presents a seamy, dissolute world into which the audience is forced through the constraints of a small performance space. Their production is not a comfortable one, or even a particularly funny one, but to me, that is its triumph. They do not try to sugar-coat this problem comedy for a modern audience’s palate. Instead, they lean into the difficult moments, heightening them and forcing audience complicity. Most of the laughter in the play is dark and uncomfortable, and they do not feel the need to lighten most of the scenes. If you are looking for a lighthearted evening, see if La La Land is still in theaters. If you are interested in confronting the problems of excess and rigidity, of gender and power dynamics, in one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays, I could not recommend this production more highly.
Categories: Theater Reviews