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Measure for Measure

Friday, Aug. 17 at 8 p.m.

Black Box Theatre

$10. Call 523-0900 for reservations.

The Blue Bard

Measure for Measure explores the capitalistic side of sex

by Paige M. Travis

Shakespeare plays are kind of like baseball cards or Beanie Babies. Some are in demand and common enough that many people have seen them. And some are more uncommon, either worth seeking out or rare because of their insignificance. Measure for Measure may rank on the rare side because the story has fewer dramatic twists for a theater company to sink its teeth into. But the East Tennessee Shakespeare Company, with co-producer Actors Co-op, has presented this lesser-known play in a way that highlights its strengths and their own.

Part drama, part comedy, Measure for Measure tries to do quite a lot. The Duke (Brian Russell) has left Vienna in the able hands of a deputy, Angelo, who starts enforcing strict laws against fornication that the Duke has let slide for 15 years. All of a sudden, prostitutes, pimps, their customers and even well-meaning but unmarried lovers are being hauled off to jail and sentenced to death. Claudio (Jim Clement) and his pregnant lover Juliet (Jenny Ballard) are taken away in handcuffs, while their friend Lucio (a sassy Wesley Young) goes to tell Claudio's sister Isabella what's going on. Isabella (Katie Norwood), who is about to become a nun, begs Angelo (Michael Golebiewski) to reconsider her brother's death sentence. What unfolds is a struggle for power, a question of morality, a clever turn of events masterminded by the Duke (disguised as a priest) and some comedic hijinks provided by a bawdy band of pimps, criminals and inefficient local lawmen.

Director Christian Ely has imagined Vienna as a circus sideshow where sex workers in garish makeup grind their hips to thumping dance music. The audience is guided from scene to scene by a dominatrix/stage manager (Ashley-Paige Rollinson), who wears a head-set and quotes a propos Bible verses between scenes. Her character isn't necessary to the play, but her creation is a neat concept. She reminds us of everyone's names and where we are now, which helps because the set consists of simple rolling wooden boxes and a very tall chair. Sparse and versatile is the Black Box way.

Angelo's morally offended disgust with the people of Vienna is tangible; Golebiewski's expressions are most effective when he's striking a smirk. He has more trouble, however, with Angelo's attraction to the virtuous Isabella. Perhaps his feelings are merely animal lust, but his portrayal isn't tempered by doubt or any acknowledgment of the irony of the situation: that Angelo's proposal that Isabella surrender her virginity to him in exchange for Claudio's life breaks the same moral and judicial law used to condemn Claudio. If this irony is stated in the text, it doesn't show in Golebiewski's actions or his face. (These nuances are more apparent when every person in the small theater is within only a few feet of the actors.) That Golebiewski was better as Hamlet's father-uncle two summers ago may be more a testament to this play's faults than his own.

Another Shakespeare vet, Katie Norwood, has never been better. Norwood's Isabella is neither na•ve or prudish: she is strong in her faith and her femininity. She invests Isabella with a steadfast integrity that banishes all shrewishness. She never whines; even when she's pleading for her brother's life, her voice is resolute. When her chastity is threatened by Angelo's desire, she shows fear but not weakness. Norwood, along with Brian Russell as the Duke, brings fully to life some of the most eloquent passages in the play. She has played strong characters before, but in Isabella, Norwood truly hits her stride.

Contrasting the weighty issues of death and virtue is comic relief from a pimp named Pompey (Amy Loyd) who gets arrested but manages to thoroughly befuddle a hilariously dim constable (Dan Owenby) and a weary Lord Escalus (Ron McIntyre-Fender). Loyd is a brash clown whose Groucho Marx brand of machismo is hilarious and endearing even when the character's motivation is unclear. In one scene, Pompey seems to be trying to prove his innocence by using the testimony of a simpleton named Froth (Brian Bonner). Something about china and prunes—even on paper it doesn't make much sense. But the physical comedy of the actors (and a stunt with a rolling chair), along with some well-spoken sexual innuendo, is enough to keep the action moving and audience members laughing.

While the other play in the summer festival, Merry Wives of Windsor, is more sexualized than Measure, the subjects of prostitution and chastity lead to some racy behavior. Angelo assaults Isabella when she refuses to sleep with him; Mistress Overdone (Amy Hubbard) unzips the pants of Lord Escalus as she's arrested; and even Lucio is flirtatious and suggestive with some attendant or other. The play is not R-rated by any means, but the sexual nature of the work and the issues of human desire are manifested in a fun way that's fitting without being lewd.

Measure for Measure fits neatly into the East Tennessee Shakespeare in the Park's repertoire. They can't repeat the same plays every year, and they'd be wise to hesitate before tackling the Bard's heavy historicals. The show benefited from the intimacy of the Black Box compared to the Tennessee Amphitheater, although sound quality was somewhat compromised by the air conditioner. The only remedy, really, is to get a quieter AC, the donation of which I'm sure the Actors Co-op would gladly accept.

August 16, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 33
© 2001 Metro Pulse