— Sereana Malani (Isabella). Photo by David Cooper
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s most peculiar plays, and director John Murphy has done some audacious things with it in his adaptation for Bard on the Beach. Setting it in turn of the 20th century New Orleans at the dawn of the jazz age, adding an overlay of race, writing additional dialogue, and composing original songs in a variety of musical styles, Murphy embroiders the script with what feels mostly like padding. But maybe inadvertently, the result is a clearer, more powerful revelation of its Shakespearean crux.
Murphy’s production echoes what Johnna Wright did last year in the same Studio tent, turning The Merry Wives of Windsor into a campy country and western musical. Murphy even uses a similar onstage band and Benjamin Elliott’s musical direction. But Wright was working with a hopelessly bad play and overlaying it with familiar, goes-down-easy Boomer nostalgia: lava lamps, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”
Murphy’s additions are more sophisticated, less accessible and less necessary. Lois Anderson as a growling, strutting Mistress Overdone oversees her whorehouse in spectacular Brecht/Weill mode, singing about New Orleans’ Storyville, the legendary red-light district where jazz was born. David Marr as Pompey does a subversive minstrel routine about the South’s blood-quantum race laws, how “one drop” of black blood makes you black. As impressive as these numbers may be, they don’t easily connect to Shakespeare’s central plot.
Liberal Duke Vincentio (Andrew Wheeler) leaves town, putting law-and-order judge Angelo (David Mackay) in charge. Sexually repressed Angelo immediately starts enforcing long-ignored laws, shutting down the brothels and sentencing Claudio (Luc Roderique) to death for impregnating his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Angelo lusts after Claudio’s sister Isabella (Sereana Malani), a nun who pleads for her brother’s life. The Duke watches all this in disguise and intercedes at the end to make everything right.
The fact that Roderique and Malani are black doesn’t really matter much, since Angelo’s repressive agenda is not racist, and the attraction both he and the Duke feel for Isabella isn’t racialized in Murphy’s scripted additions or the actors’ performances. Which is not to say that we don’t notice that these Southern white men persecute a black man and lust after a black woman. It just feels like an add-on, not an essential element.
What is essential is how very well Murphy and his actors tell this story. Roderique simply makes Claudio seem the nice guy everyone says he is. Malani offers a warmer Isabella than is often portrayed, dignified but not so aloofly in love with her own virtue and virginity. Mackay does a fine job playing intense drama rather than his usual comic role, nicely revealing the agony of his sexual hypocrisy despite an unnecessary Murphy-invented sequence of Southern Baptist gospel preachin’, testifyin’ and wrestling with the Holy Ghost.
Wheeler is magisterial as the Duke, and speaks the verse with a piercing clarity that some of the other actors might usefully emulate, given the southern accents and the muddy acoustics of the small tent. The tenor of David Marr’s voice makes his accented dialogue and lyrics particularly difficult to understand, especially when his back is turned, as is often the case in the ¾ round staging.
Very nice work, too, from Anton Lipovetsky, playing Lucio as a sly Southern gentleman, and Bernard Cuffling as Escalus, the Duke’s/Mayor’s honest second-in-command. Escalus’ appearance in men’s black formal wear and a white tutu is an amusing mystery. Costumer Mara Gottler otherwise shows restraint with the colourful Mardi Gras-ish dress in which characters appear from time to time.
One thing that doesn’t work at all is the secondary comedy, some of the lamest in Shakespeare. Given the sexual themes, Murphy has his actors really push their crotch-grabbing machismo, which just calls attention to how unfunny it all is. Some half-hearted Keystone Kops choreography is no better.
For most of Measure for Measure, though, Shakespeare shows himself to be a far superior playwright to John Murphy, and Murphy a very astute director.