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I Hate the ’80s

Shakespeare Update Tackles Reagan-Era Morality

IT'S MORNING IN AMERICA: (from left) Carlos Del Valle and Reece Thornberry give Shakespeare a gender-bending retro twist.

By John Barry | Posted 2/22/2006

Measure for Measure

By William Shakespeare

At Mobtown Theater through March 11

Though listed as a comedy, Measure for Measure isn’t that funny. There’s romance, but it’s almost enclosed as an afterthought; the comedy itself is left to the clowns. The focus is generally on Angelo, an embodiment of fundamentalist morality who, in the end, finds that one should not judge lest he be judged.

Actually, make that Angela. Director Ryan Whinnem puts his stamp on the Mobtown Players’ production of the play by switching sexes and placing the play in 1980s America. The stated intention is to turn this borderline comedy into a sort of meditation on the hypocrisy of anti-gay politicians. In other words, instead of criminalizing adultery, this Measure deals with the criminalization of sodomy. The pro tempore executive power of the city has fallen into the hands of Angela (Allison Joyce), a woman with lesbian inclinations. She persecutes Claudio (Carlos Del Valle), who, instead of fornicating with Juliette and producing a child in the process, has been caught sodomizing Julio (Bradley Burgess). Angela, with her harsh and literalist interpretations of the law, has condemned Claudio to death. Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Diana Cherkas), pleads for mercy. Angela’s own rigid approach to the laws is then undermined by her desire for Isabella.

Whinnem doesn’t fiddle with the references to Vienna, but the setting is apparently, although not exclusively, in Texas. The provost, along with sidekick Elbow (Bradley Burgess), are good old boys who spend their time ordering out Chinese (with a long interlude where he delivers his lines between bites of Chinese noodles). The bawdy house is a gay bar of sorts, frequented by punks and a band that plays several riffs from the Sex Pistols’ version of “Stepping Stone.” The accents are a little hard to pin down: Some of the lines are delivered in a Texas drawl, others in Elizabethan English.

If Measure has any message to deliver, it’s that purists are the biggest bastards of all, and this fast-forwarding of Shakespeare doesn’t take enough chances to make the update work. If you’re going to turn Shakespeare into a meditation on the hypocrisy of Reagan-era sexual morality, then pull out all the stops. This production just pulls out a few of them, which gets a little confusing.

Dyed hair and barroom queens are a fine addition, but they aren’t in the play itself—they stand uncomfortably in the background, leaving the “real” characters to deliver their lines in the traditional manner. A good deal of intelligent thought did go into Mobtowns’ concept, and in some sense the recent literalist interpretation of sodomy laws in Texas is a legitimate parallel. And this production does have some very good moments. As Isabella and Claudio, Cherkas and Del Valle make an excellent couple, and their famous confrontation in Claudio’s cell is a highlight of the play. Steve Beall delivers an excellent walk-on as Barnardine, the prisoner who is too hungover to permit his own execution. Joyce’s Angela has a power-skirted presence that fits the role appropriately. And Reece Thornbery approaches Lucio, a hapless Fantastic, in an appealing zoot-suited incarnation.

This interpretation’s problem is more a question of putting the cart before the horse. Before relocating portions of the story, Mobtown needs to get a little more comfortable with the script itself. It also needs to focus on slimming it down a bit. That doesn’t necessarily involve taking out lines: Measure for Measure is not a short play to begin with, but the insertion of songs—six choral interludes—puts it at about three and a half hours. While the ’80s standards—Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love, David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” four others—are arranged pretty well by Donna Panzer, the play would stand fine without them.

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