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Desperate Measures

Theatre Review by Jose SolĂ­s - June 13, 2018


Peter Saide, Sarah Parnicky, Connor Ryan, Lauren Molina,
Nick Wyman, and Gary Marachek
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Among all of Shakespeare's works, Measure for Measure stands out for being one of the most difficult to stage in modern days. Its misogynistic qualities rivaled only by those of The Taming of the Shrew, and yet that one often sneaks into theatrical seasons via its musical adaptation, Kiss Me, Kate which softens and often camouflages the most chauvinistic moments through Cole Porter's delirious music and lyrics. With its play-within-a-play framing, Kiss Me, Kate set the standard for how to do a "problem play," in a less icky way. Shakespeare's malleability has allowed for adaptations set in modern NYC, high schools, and animated films with talking animals, but the new musical Desperate Measures (opening tonight at New World Stages) is among the few that has filtered the Bard through the lens of the American Wild West.

By setting the plot of Measure for Measure in the land of reckless frontiersmen, damsels in constant distress, and faith as the only escape, Peter Kellogg (book and lyrics) and David Friedman (music), have done away with the need to justify why this Shakespeare and why now. Granted, the musical has undergone several iterations during the last fifteen years, so its arrival in New York City in the age of #MeToo, comes as nothing but a sad coincidence. The gender dynamics and the coercion of women into unwanted sexual relations remains as disturbing as it always should have been, but now what must've seemed an innocuous musical comedy becomes the very definition of a "guilty pleasure." How do we allow ourselves to enjoy a musical about the violent subjugation of women knowing everything we know about the world?

The answer might come in something uttered by the Sheriff (Peter Saide) who at one point says something along the lines of "this would be awful, if it weren't funny." He's referring to a devious plot that has him team up with a novice (Sarah Parnicky) and a sex worker (Lauren Molina) who are trying to have the corrupt governor (Nick Wyman) pardon a slacker cowboy (Conor Ryan) who killed a man in a pub fight. As we see the innocent nun-to-be flirt with the lecherous governor, it's hard not to think about the recent White House meeting that had a voluptuous reality TV star meet with the President to have him pardon an African American woman sent to prison for life for a first time drug offense. What those walls must've heard has got to be the stuff nightmares are made of.

Therefore, Desperate Measures, navigates a line between laugh out loud moments, and scenes that remind us of real life in very specific ways. As we see the lengths women will go to, in order to protect the men they love we can't help but be reminded of the select group of women who tried to steer the 2016 election away from the misogynistic candidate, but also the white women who voted in the interest of their husbands and the prolongation of the status quo. Both are personal demonstrations of love, but each one had global consequences.

Perhaps, the creative team behind Desperate Measures meant no harm in wanting to turn in a Measure for Measure that was purely fun, but as the role of art as an invitation to activism becomes more essential than ever, there is little escape to be found in a musical in which a woman considers marrying an authoritarian figure as a better solution than fending on her own. Not to mention, the all-white cast, despite their undeniable talents, feels a bit too on the nose in a show mirroring modern life in so many ways.

But past the uncomfortable parallels to what we see on CNN, the musical isn't without its charms, most of them coming in the form of Molina, who turns in a performance of such comedic precision that comparing her to Lucille Ball feels like somewhat of an understatement. Relying on physical comedy and reactions that always feel like close-ups, despite the theatre's inability to amplify images, Molina waltzes away with the show's most memorable moments, several including Ryan who plays her dimwitted love interest.

Infusing the part of saloon performer/sex worker Bella Rose with enough heart to make us imagine a life behind the elaborate costumes and heavy makeup, Molina reminds us of reality in a very different way. Not only is she an example of how it's female comedians who've in many cases been the most outspoken against the atrocities committed by the current administration, but also in an elemental way she reminds us of the power of laughter, a rejuvenating elixir that stimulates our facial muscles, increases our endorphins, and sometimes, when it's loud enough helps us mask our tears.


Desperate Measures
Through September 9
New World Stages / Stage 4, 340 West 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge


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