This summer, Theatricum Botanicum examines the inequity of a rigid moralistic government and the effect upon its citizens in Shakespeare's MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Director Ellen Geer maximizes the impact of the play's themes by moving the time period to the pressure cooker era of the late 1960s, a perfect choice for the Toganga Canyon venue which already feels like you've taken a trip back in time the minute you walk in. With its weathered wooden stage built into the hills of Topanga Canyon, it's easy to picture a be-in, lovefest, or peace march taking place even today.
It is quite fitting then that MEASURE FOR MEASURE's Biblical concept of judging others as you would wish to be judged, and its underlying question of how much involvement the government should have in the moral choices of the people, finds a voice here. During the pre-show, flower children sing songs from the open door of a VW van parked in the driveway. Once inside they wander among guests – a baby on one's hip, a protest sign in another's hand, as a rally swings into motion led by Gerald C. Rivers, preaching from the rooftop with a voice that is a dead ringer for civil rights activist, DR. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is one of a number of excellent actors that are part of the company for Theatricum's summer season that includes returning favorites and some new faces.
Governor Vincentio (Aaron Hendry) has gone into hiding and appointed Colonel Angelo (Adam Mondschein) to rule in his absence. Vowing to enforce the city's strict moral code as Vincentio has not, Angelo promptly makes an example of young Claudio (Colin Simon), who has gotten his girlfriend Juliet (Crystal Clark) pregnant before marriage, and sentences him to death. Claudio appeals to his sister Isabella (Willow Geer), studying to enter a nunnery, and asks her to speak to Angelo on his behalf. Spurred on by Claudio's friend Lucio (Melora Marshall), she goes to Angelo to intercede but the unexpected radiance of her purity and goodness incites Angelo's lust. He agrees to let her brother go but only if she will give up her virtue to him. Horrified, she returns to tell Claudio she cannot help him.
Meanwhile, Vincentio has been roaming the city disguised as a friar and overhears Isabella and Claudio's tearful goodbye in the prison. Unhappy with the way Angelo has interpreted his laws, he approaches Isabella (still disguised) with a plan that will expose Angelo's villainous conduct and save her brother.
A trio of fine performances forms the center of the production. As you'd expect, Mondschein, Hendry and Geer have creatEd Strong, passionate characters that keep the wheels of this bumpy tragicomedy turning efficiently to its inevitable climax. But what I found even more interesting was the way they explored the weaknesses in their characters. Their internal struggles create a dynamic tension that pulsates underneath the scenes and speaks to the vulnerability that is common in us all.
Mondschein's Angelo is not merely an extremist dictator but a man mystified and tortured by his attraction to Isabella and by his inability to control his feelings. You can see it in the way his face softens and his body betrays his intellect, before the bars slam down and he issues his ultimatum. Geer portrays Isabella not simply as an unwavering religious nun, but as a woman who wrestles internally with the meaning of 'an eye for an eye,' and who ultimately offers mercy to her wrongdoer when she could have rightfully chosen vengeance instead. And if Hendry's Vincentio hadn't retreated from his duty as leader in order to study his people without their knowledge in the first place, he would never have found that he was not so immune from the "dribbling dart of love" as he so vehemently states at the beginning of the play. In one of the play's sweetest moments, Hendry lays open his heart and asks Isabella with all humility if she will take him as her husband. It is the loveliest of conclusions and completely satisfying to watch.
Crazy, eccentric supporting characters provide the contrast in Ellen Geer's production and they leap into the hippie-fest with glee. Among them are Earnestine Phillips, loud and proud and ready to blow the roof off in her boisterous turn as Mrs. Overdone, Gerald C. Rivers as the flamboyant pimp Pompey, and in the juiciest switch of the night, Melora Marshall as the eccentric, guitar-playing, pot smoking, cad-about-town, Lucio. So detailed, cavalier, smug, changeable, and funny is she in the role that I swear you'll want to go back and see her in that mustache again….and again.
Ellen Geer enhances the play with iconic music from the sixties and other signs (quite literally) of the times, making MEASURE FOR MEASURE a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking production, and one heck of a righteous good time. Don't miss it.