Measuring UpBerkeley's Theater Department Stages a Strong Showing of One Of Shakespeare's 'Problem Plays'
Monday, October 13, 2008
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Theater
Attempting to modernize Shakespeare can have disastrous consequences. The language is clearly not modern and intricacies can be lost if the characters and actors are pushed too close to the absurd and too far from the original context. But when done correctly, modern Shakespeare can be extremely powerful.
Fortunately, in its production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," the Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies does it right.
Indeed, this production is only partially modernized: Director Peter Glazer has placed "Measure" in an unidentifiable time period, relying on the ability of the actors and the potency of the script rather than gimmicks or elaborations. Three offset concrete walls provide the backdrop to the action, imbuing the production with an aura of the streets. The set itself is Spartan: The only changes involve the rearranging of a simple wooden benches and chairs, leaving much to the physicality of the actors and the audience's imagination. But hints of modernity brilliantly are expressed in the extraordinary costumes, which are an odd but innovative fusion of Elizabethan and present-day garb. Thus the performance's modern aspects are cleverly presented as subtle but pervasive undercurrents that continually suggest the resonance of Shakespeare's lines in the present day.
As one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays,' "Measure for Measure" oscillates between comedy and drama. The plot deals primarily with the plight of a young gentleman, Claudio, who has impregnated his betrothed before marriage, breaking the immorality laws of Vienna. In the absence of the city's Duke, a judge, Angelo, has been left to rule in his place. Intent on harshly enforcing law, Angelo orders Claudio to be executed. Claudio's friend Lucio entreats Claudio's sister Isabella, an aspiring nun, to plead before Angelo on behalf of her brother's life. Angelo becomes obsessed with her and offers a proposition: sleep with him and he'll spare Claudio.
This complex, emotionally charged plot was handled well by the actors. Will Austin and Daniel Desmarais were most adept in pronouncing Shakespeare and coloring the lines with personality and meaning in their portrayal of The Duke and Lucio, respectively. The Duke, who is in fact not absent but instead disguised as a friar in order to observe from afar the workings of his state, commands the stage with a truly regal presence. Desmarais's Lucio is conversely captivating-he struts across the stage with a hilariously pompous air, vibrantly handling the script with an astounding ease, all the while providing an excellent foil to the stately Duke. Impressive as well is Drew Ledbetter's flamboyant take on Pompey, a local bawd whose pitch-perfect timing and irreverent physical antics let not one sex joke go to waste.
The only aspect of the play that lends itself to criticism was Reya Sehgal's Isabella. Her performance, though not bad, fell flat compared to the dynamic nature of the rest of the cast. Although she plays a nun, the role could have been taken farther in terms of the level emotion displayed-at times she spoke so quietly that it was difficult to hear.
In all, the performance was very effective, tugging at political, sexual and moral themes that are at the forefront of Shakespeare's concerns. As for the ending, Shakespeare's actual script is left open. In this performance, it is treated quite cleverly. But you'll have to see the show for yourself to find out about that.
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