Sunday, February 23, 2020

Measure For Measure (Antaeus Theatre Company’s 2020 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Jenny Graham
A story of corruption and hypocrisy, and of a man exploiting his position of power to satisfy his own personal desires is probably always relevant, but these days it seems particularly pertinent. Antaeus Theatre Company’s excellent new production of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure focuses on how Angelo, newly appointed to serve as Duke in Vincentio’s absence, uses his newfound position to coerce sexual favors from Isabella, a novice nun. This production is directed by Armin Shimerman and Elizabeth Swain, and features some absolutely captivating performances, particularly by Carolyn Ratteray as Isabella, Ramón de Ocampo as Angelo, and Bo Foxworth as Lucio.

The set is fairly simple, with a raised platform in the center, upon which is a wood desk and chair. Behind that is a set of bookshelves, with the scales of justice in a central position. The play, of course, deals with the concept and execution of justice, and how it may be tempered by mercy. As the performance begins, the Duke (Paul Culos) takes his position by the desk, but before he can speak, there is a sudden clamor, as several others enter below him, rowdy citizens displaying licentious behavior and attitudes, wild and undisciplined. Vincentio watches in dismay. It is good that we get this moment and this sense of how he views the citizens, for this helps us understand why he is temporarily giving his powers to his deputy, Angelo. Angelo (Ramón de Ocampo) is understandably confused at suddenly being given the position to rule, and at first does not desire such a position. The play’s opening scene moves quite quickly, which works well for Angelo’s sense of surprise. This production includes quite a bit of doubling up of roles, and the actor who plays Angelo also plays Claudio, Isabella’s brother. It is interesting that the same actor plays the one condemning and the one condemned. When Claudio enters, he is paraded in front of the audience, leading to his line “why dost thou show me thus to th’ world?” He is shackled, and a sign around his neck reads, “Lechery.”

When the Duke explains his plan to Friar Thomas (Paul Eiding), the Friar does not immediately take to it, which is a really nice moment. The Duke’s role in this play is often the toughest to defend, for he seems to take delight in trickery, and so it is great that this religious man doesn’t at first think too kindly of his plan to pretend he is one of their order. At the end of that scene, Friar Thomas silently hands the Duke his Bible as a way to indicate he will comply with the Duke’s wishes, which to me seems to show a reluctance and a mild reproof of the Duke’s scheme, which again is wonderful. Paul Eiding also plays both Elbow and Barnadine. While he is quite funny as the somewhat bumbling constable, where he really shines is as Barnadine, the prisoner who does not consent to being executed.

Isabella (Carolyn Ratteray) has a sweet and kind air about her when we first meet her, and is immediately likeable. When she first speaks to Angelo in the hope of saving her brother’s life, she nearly breaks on the line “I had a brother then,” which is incredibly moving. And so when Lucio says that she’s too cold, we feel for her. She does begin to turn away again when Angelo says “be gone,” and might have given up but for Lucio’s stern look at her. It is clear that her eloquence then is what impresses Angelo and begins to stir his interest. When Angelo states his own case, he pulls out several books, and opens them to show her the laws that he is enforcing. He speaks almost as passionately as Isabella, his passion being for the law. When Isabella’s speaks the line “O, it is excellent/To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant,” Lucio pipes in with “That’s well said,” and he is clearly speaking for all of us in the audience. That is a line for all times, isn’t it? Both Isabella and Angelo are fantastic in this scene. Angelo is troubled, even shocked, by his own desire, which is great. After Isabella and Lucio exit, Angelo plainly and honestly asks us in the audience, “What’s this? What’s this?” And it feels like he truly is hoping one of us will provide him an answer. His distress seems true, and he drops to his knees and uses his belt to whip himself, perhaps as punishment for his thoughts, or perhaps in the hope that the act will cleanse himself of them. It is a powerful and unexpected moment.

And before their second scene together, Angelo is clearly nervous, but then steels himself when Isabella enters. On his “if you give me love,” he steps to block Isabella’s way. When she threatens to make public what has transpired in his office, Angelo says, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” That is the question, isn’t it? And that it is how we end up with someone like Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. This is an intense moment in the play, for now Angelo is unleashed, and Isabella is clearly in danger. Angelo steals a kiss from her, and even that feels like rape. When Angelo exits, Isabella is left alone on the stage, and she has taken his words to heart, now asking herself and the heavens, “Who would believe me?” And it is this image of Isabella alone that we are left with as the first half of the performance ends. Interestingly, during intermission a board is placed in front of the bookcase, so the scales of justice are no longer visible.

While Ramón de Ocampo is phenomenal as Angelo, he is also quite good as Claudio. I particularly like his expression during the Duke’s speech about life and death, which reads as “What the hell is this guy talking about?” And Claudio’s fear of death is believable, especially when he says “to die and go we know not where.” Indeed, that is a fear most have, and it causes us to side with him, at least momentarily. Isn’t his life worth more than his sister’s virginity? And when she shouts at him in anger, that is the moment when she seems coldest. But when soon thereafter Claudio begs to be allowed to ask his sister’s pardon, we feel for them both, and again find ourselves seeing things from Isabella’s perspective.

Bo Foxworth is outstanding as Lucio. He is hilarious in the scene where he asks Isabella to speak to Angelo on her brother’s behalf. But what is more remarkable is that he conveys the seriousness of the situation equally well. It is a joy to watch his layered performance. In the scene where he speaks to the disguised Duke (which in this production happens before Act II Scene iv), when he asks “What news, Friar, of the Duke,” we get the sense that he knows the Friar’s identity. His delivery is delicious and pointed. He then raises his voice on “what a ruthless thing is this in him,” his anger seeming to be directed at the Duke as well as at Angelo, a nice touch. But when he pulls a blade out, we in the audience are forced to think twice about his awareness of the Friar’s identity. Foxworth also plays Juliet, and his appearance as that character gets an initial laugh from the audience. Aaron Lyons also turns in a good performance as Pompey, a character who takes great joy in himself and in his questionable traits. I love the way he adjusts his speech and his voice depending on whom he is addressing. For example, his “The valiant heart’s not whipped out of his trade” speech is delivered directly to the audience, and the change in tone shows he is taking us into his confidence.

The ending of Measure For Measure presents some problems. The Duke is devious in letting Isabella continue to believe her bother to be dead, and it is impossible to like him in that moment. Yet when he returns to reclaim his position, it is supposed to be a joyous moment, one of relief, that all things will be righted. And it turns out that he, like Angelo, is attracted to Isabella. And while he doesn’t try to force himself upon her, he does propose marriage, which means he doesn’t take Isabella’s devotion to her faith all that seriously. Shakespeare provides no response for Isabella. And so how are we to take her silence? Is it a joy not needed to be expressed in words? Is it acquiescence to the desire of someone in position of authority, something she had done her best to avoid throughout the play? In this production, it is neither. Isabella steps back from the Duke when he proposes marriage, and the Duke, understanding, nods at her, accepting her rejection. It is a much stronger and daring position for her to take. And, as at the end of the first act, Isabella is left alone on stage at the end of the performance.

This production of Measure For Measure runs through April 6th. Visit the theatre’s official website for the complete schedule. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act II. Antaeus Theatre Company performs at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, located at 110 East Broadway in Glendale, California.

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