Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Measure for Measure

Also see Tim's reviews of Closer Than Ever and Musical of Musicals: The Musical!

James Stover and
Joy Farmer-Clary

Quintessence Theatre Group is a new company, based in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, which says it is "dedicated to the adaptation of epic works of drama and classic literature" for the stage. Quintessence is making its bow with Measure for Measure, a play that Shakespearean scholars often refer to as one of the Bard's "problem plays." Director Alexander Burns' production doesn't solve all of the play's problems; it even causes a few new and unnecessary ones. Yet it's helped greatly by some terrific performances.

Measure for Measure is a mixture of tragedy and comedy; for centuries, critics have complained that the blend is an awkward one. Burns' solution has been to excise nearly all of the comedy, along with several of the supporting characters. This gives the play a more manageable length (just over two hours); unfortunately, it also makes the play seem lopsided and overly grim at times. The changes aren't fatal; the interpretation given here is a thoughtful and valid one. Yet, with the play's heavy subject matter (life, death, and sexual morality), and with the barebones staging the play receives here (a blank white wall, stark and unforgiving lighting, no scenery save a few chairs), a bit of levity and liveliness would be sorely appreciated.

Furthermore, playgoers who haven't seen the comedy scenes don't know what they're missing. I saw a colorful and inventive production of this play last summer at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, which added some Marx Brothers-style slapstick for the supporting players that blended seamlessly with Shakespeare's text. It was a production that proved that, in the right hands, the show's comedy can work beautifully.

The opening scene of Quintessence's Measure for Measure is a seduction scene set in a disco. For a few minutes, while techno music throbs insistently, it seems as if we're in for a bold, sexy retelling of this centuries-old morality tale ... but the illicit lovers are soon arrested, and the modernistic touches soon fade away. Burns' staging is a straightforward and conventional one, lucidly telling the tale of Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for having premarital sex, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun who must decide whether to ensure her brother's freedom by sacrificing her principles.

Each of the cast members has an excellent command of Shakespeare's language, and each gives a fine performance. James Stover is properly creepy as the villainous official determined to seduce Isabella, and John G Williams is a hoot as a street-smart Lucio. But it's the charismatic Joy Farmer-Clary who gives the show its heart. Farmer-Clary portrays Isabella with a mixture of dignity, warmth and empathy that makes you want to root for her.

Measure for Measure is an imperfect play, and Quintessence's attempt to refashion and streamline it doesn't quite work. Yet it never seems boring or amateurish; it's filled with excellent, compelling performances. Already, this new company shows a lot of promise.

Measure for Measure runs through Closer May 30, 2010, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Ticket prices are $25, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at, or by visiting the box office.

Measure for Measure
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Alexander Burns
Costumes... Jane Casanave
Stage Manger... Pamela Reichen

Duke Vincentio... Damon Bonetti
Claudio, Barnardine... Sean Bradley
Juliet, Messenger... Kaki Burns
Isabella... Joy Farmer-Clary
Provost, Friar Thomas... Doug Greene
Sister Francesca, Executive Assistant, Mariana... Jennifer Hutten
Escalus, Pompey... Tanya Lazar
Angelo... James Stover
Lucio... John G Williams

Photo: Elan Gepner

-- Tim Dunleavy

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