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vancouverplays review


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— Production poster

By William Shakespeare
The Honest Fishmongers
Pacific Theatre, 1440 W. 12th Ave.
Jan. 17-Feb. 8
$19.99-$29.99 or 604-731-5518

Sporting the best name of any theatre company in town, Kevin Bennett's The Honest Fishmongers Equity Co-op has become known for its intimate, innovative approach to Shakespearean classics. Blending strong acting, postmodern design, and staging that brings the audience into physical contact with the players, the Fishmongers' recent productions of Hamlet and King Lear at the Havana Theatre have established them as a welcome complement to the more expansive Shakespeares of Bard on the Beach.

Having climbed the titanic mountains of the great tragedies, Bennett now takes his company into the crooked labyrinth of Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare's strangest and most difficult plays. They've also moved venues, performing on Pacific Theatre's tiny church basement stage with its narrow rows of seats rising on either side.

Although it provides moments of illumination, this Measure for Measure mostly gives us Shakespeare in the dark.

At the centre of the play is Angelo (Simon Webb), a man so righteous, honourable and upstanding that the Duke (Ted Cole) appoints him to take his place. As acting Duke, assisted by virtuous Escalus (Alison Kelly), Angelo soon shows his true colours. A strict, puritanical law-and-order guy, he condemns Claudio (Jeff Gladstone) to death via a little-used law for having pre-marital sex with his girlfriend Juliet (Pippa Johnstone).

But Angelo is also a hypocrite. When Claudio's sister Isabella (Julie McIsaac), a novice nun, comes begging Angelo to spare her brother, Angelo's own tightly repressed sexuality explodes in a torrent of lust for chaste, pious Isabella. He offers to trade sex with her for her brother's life. Then he'll betray her.

Meanwhile, the Duke has been hanging around disguised as a friar, manipulating things so Isabella won't actually have to do the deed with Angelo. He arranges for willing Mariana (Katharine Venour) to take Isabella's place in Angelo's bed.

In a tortuous interpretation of law and morality, the Duke decides that it's okay for Mariana to have sex with Angelo because they had been engaged until Angelo dumped her. It will be ironic payback for Angelo, preserve Isabella's virtue, get Mariana the husband she wants, and save Claudio.

Dark doings indeed. The only thing more dubious than the morality of this arrangement is its credibility. Shakespeare asks us to accept a convention here--that a man having sex in the dark can't tell one woman from another. But Venour's Mariana is about a foot taller than McIsaac's Isabella. This Angelo must be very deep in the throes of lust.

To reflect the murky subterranean currents of psychology and plot, director Bennett and designers Shizuka Kai and Graham Ockley have lit Pacific Theatre's basement like a cave, marking each corner of the stage with a dozen small candles. Whenever an actor claps twice, the full lights go off, leaving only the candles to light the play. Each actor also holds a candle near his or her face.

The visual effect is a handsome chiaroscuro, like a Michelangelo painting. The trouble is you can't see the actors' faces in any detail.

At times it's like a radio play. Simon Webb's vocal work is terrific: his Angelo's cool, flat, silky-smooth voice keeps the darkness of his heart barely in check. But it would have been nice to be able to see the whole complex range of Angelo's emotions pass across the face of this fine actor.

Pacific Theatre, a Christian company, is presenting this production partly because of the play's moral issues. Is Isabella's virtue too rigid and cold? Is the Duke's morality too relative? How much forgiveness should Angelo receive? The strong performances of McIsaac and Cole as well as Webb should frame these questions. But the questions get obscured along with the actors' faces for what feels increasingly like a clever gimmick, characters dueling with hand-claps as the lights blast on and off.

The shifts between dim candlelight and bright electric seem relatively arbitrary, but most of the dramatic scenes are played in darkness while the comedy is always brightly lit. Would that it were the opposite. Excellent comedians Peter Anderson (Lucio), Michael Fera (Constable Elbow) and Emmelia Gordon (Pompey the bawd) work hard at one of Shakespeare's least funny comic subplots. Their punkish, clownish costumes by Christopher David Gauthier are fun and so is their interaction with the audience.

Bennett makes other directorial choices that indicate how truly innovative this production might have been, especially in the dance that closes the play (kudos to choreographer Lisa Goebel). It has a fresh, contemporary flavour, great energy, and doesn't feel at all out of sync with Shakespeare.

And it's performed in the light.

Jerry Wasserman