Sex. Manipulation. Duplicity.
No, no, not politicians. It’s Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” which the Rogue Theatre opened Sunday.
The play has those timeless qualities woven through it, and though director David Morden set it in the Elizabethan period, the characters could be plucked out of today’s society.
This is often considered one of the Bard’s “problem plays” — it’s very funny, but it has a very dark edge, as well. What’s a director to do?
Morden went the comedic route. Hints of the sinister elements were there, but they were buried in the laughs.
And there are very sinister aspects: infidelity, coercion, lies.
The Rogue, which embraces a Shakespeare almost every season, has mounted a respectable “Measure for Measure.” It moves swiftly, has solid acting, and there is nary a moment when one has to struggle to figure out what the actors are saying. One reason for that is that accents are not used, so the ear doesn’t have to take some time to get the rhythm of the language.
Marissa Garcia’s Isabella is a virginal novice about to take her vows as a nun when she tries to save her brother from the hangman. It’s a difficult role — the character veers from a meek, quiet person to one who must beg for her brother’s life with the veracity of a Clarence Darrow. All the while, she does not approve of her brother’s actions. Garcia handles the swings with convincing grace. She can also say volumes with just a cock of her brow.
Matt Bowdren gave a cruel touch to Angelo, who has been put in charge while the Duke takes a break from ruling. Angelo is an uncompromising man who decides to close all brothels and arrest all fornicators. One of those is Isabella’s brother, Claudio, who has made the mistake of getting his betrothed pregnant. He’s been sentenced to death. Angelo is willing to save Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. Bowdren has a powerful presence on stage.
But this is a greatly conflicted character. He finds himself lusting after Isabella and is confused as he struggles with his desires: “What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” he wonders out loud. That inner turmoil was buried deep in Bowdren; he seemed more committed to the one-note sinister aspects of this ultimately creepy guy.
Oh, there are a lot of guys with creep potential in this play — the thought-of-as-kind Duke, nicely portrayed by Joseph McGrath, has no problem sneaking around in disguise to see what happens in his absence, or causing unnecessary anguish to prolong his ruse; Lucio, a friend of Claudio’s, has no qualms about destroying reputations with outlandish lies (Lee Rayment was a stitch in the role, one of Shakespeare’s more delicious clowns), and Elbow, a not-terribly-bright constable who is always on the prowl for the most innocuous misconduct. Elbow is rich in malapropisms, and Steve McKee made the most of the funny moments.
“Measure for Measure” might be more provocative if Morden had chosen a different approach. It could have used more nuanced characters.
Still, while it doesn’t illuminate much about human nature or the play, it most definitely entertains.