The Marin Shakespeare Company opens its 30th season with Measure for Measure. Shakespeare on justice and mercy would seem to be a perfect fit for a company that brings their Shakespeare for Social Justice program to eight California state prisons.
Officially labeled a comedy, Measure for Measure is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” in which the situation a main character gets into is reflective of a greater societal problem. Here, the issue is the enforcement of law with little mercy.
Judge Vincentio (Patrick Russell) cedes his authority to Judge Angelo (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) in an attempt to avoid responsibility for the strict enforcement of the law. Vincentio disguises himself as a friar so he can stick around and see what happens.
Angelo begins immediate enforcement of the laws, closing all the brothels (except those that cater to the upper crust) and imposing the death penalty on those found guilty of fornication. Claudio (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), who has impregnated his girlfriend, soon finds himself on death row. He begs his friend Lucio (Ariel Zuckerman) to get his sister Isabella (Luisa Frasconi) to leave her convent and intercede with the judge.
Isabella meets with the judge to plead for her brother’s life. After a day’s consideration, Angelo offers to release Claudio if Isabella gives herself to him. Isabella threatens to expose him, but the smug Angelo knows she will not be believed: “Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”
Working behind the scenes to right the many wrongs in play, Vincentio puts a plan in motion to save the day.
One of Shakespeare’s less frequently produced works, director Robert Currier has added elements to make this play more contemporary. The set, by Jackson Currier, is modeled after San Quentin. The costumes, by Tammy Berlin, are modern. Spoken word sound bites by LeMar “Maverick” Harrison and picket signs with social justice messages bridge the scenes. Such devices are often used to make plays more accessible, but in this case some of them weakened the show and made it longer than necessary.
Performances ranged from professional to amateurish, with the best work done by Russell, O’Malley (when you could hear him), Frasconi, Steve Price as advisor Escalus, and Ed Berkeley as Pompey.
Get past the directorial excesses, and you’ll find a darkly comic tale of morality, hypocrisy and law. “After all, the play’s the thing.”