Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Measure 4 Measure

Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Dean's review of Black Coffee

Caitlin Kelly and Jack French
(foreground, Lisa Fenstermacher
and Ericka Zepeda

Photo by Russell Maynor
Some of Shakespeare's words might be the closest thing we have in English to divinely inspired writing, but still, it is not scripture. Messing a little with the text is not sacrilege, and sometimes Shakespeare needs a little salt to make him palatable to modern tastes.

Here's the first sentence of Measure for Measure: "Of government the properties to unfold/Would seem in me t' affect speech and discourse,/Since I am put to know that your own science/Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice/My strength can give you." I defy anyone to tell me what that means. If I had to watch this play done straight, I would be asleep by page three. Sometimes Shakespeare needs a surgeon.

VJ Liberatori is quite a good one. She has trimmed most of the fat (can we call it liposuction?) and brings the play in under two and a half hours. She has set it in present-day Albuquerque, the 26th deadliest city in America, tied with Miami (as a pre-play newscast tells us). And she has punched up the comedy, drawing some real laughs from the audience. Measure for Measure is catalogued as one of Shakespeare's comedies, but you wouldn't know it from most productions, which emphasize only the dark side of human behavior on display.

Dark indeed is the story. Since the exposition is a little hard to understand, it helps if you have a hint as to what's going on. The Duke (mayor) has been in charge of the city for 14 years, during which time crime and prostitution just keep getting worse. The Duke doesn't seem to have the cojones to clean things up, so he tells everyone that he's leaving town for a while and puts Angelo, a hard-line law-and-order deputy, in charge.

Practically the first thing Angelo does is condemn Claudio to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant before marriage. Lechery is against the law, no one is above the law, and the law must be enforced if anyone is going to pay attention to it. Claudio's sister Isabella is a novitiate, and is supposed to take her vows to become a nun in a day or two. She goes to beg Angelo to spare her brother's life, but Angelo refuses—until he realizes that he has developed an overwhelming lust for Isabella. If she gives her body to him, Claudio will live. Or maybe not.

The plot proceeds from there. There is a "let's swap virgins in the night" device that you also find in All's Well That Ends Well, and a policeman who's a copy of Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing. There aren't a lot of famous quotations to have come out of this play, but there is a beautiful monologue by the Duke, with the memorable line "Thou hast nor youth nor age, but as it were an after-dinner's sleep dreaming on both." (T.S. Eliot used this as an epigraph to one of his poems.) The ending of Liberatori's version of the play is not quite the "and now we all get married and live happily ever after" ending you expect from Shakespeare comedies. I like her ending better.

Where's the comedy? There's not a heck of a lot, but enough to keep this play from being a total downer. The scenes with Pompey the pimp liven things up, but most of the humor comes from the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Duke, disguised as a friar. In true farce fashion, all you need to do is put on a hat and a pair of sunglasses and nobody recognizes you. The show begins with a live medley of Pink Floyd's "Money" and ABBA's "Money, Money, Money" sung by Mistress Overdone, a madam. This number is about the only thing that doesn't fit in this adaptation, since money is hardly mentioned in the play and is not the driving force behind any of the major characters' actions, but the songs are certainly performed well by Lisa Fenstermacher.

Speaking of performances, Liberatori has assembled quite a good cast. Blake Magnusson as the Duke has the largest role, and he plays it energetically and entertainingly; his gesticulations in his friar disguise provide a lot of the humor. Isabella is on stage a lot, too, and Caitlin Kelly plays her with an appropriate degree of reserve, but I would have liked to see her get more emotional at times—there are several opportunities for it. Claudio is Jack French, who is a recent transplant from England and the only cast member to speak with a British accent (which doesn't jibe with the fact that he's Isabella's brother, but I didn't care because it sounded so fine). He's very good, and I couldn't help thinking of Heath Ledger every time I saw him.

Nicholas Ganjei does well as the bad guy of the piece, Angelo, but since the character really has no redeeming virtues, he could have made him a little nastier. Dan K. Tabeling filled in for Ryan Montenery as Lucio. Even though he often had to look at his lines, it was a good performance. Bradd Howard is amusing as Pompey, and Scott Bing, Ericka Zepeda, Michelle Varela, Spencer Christian Scott, Joshua Ball, Marissa Johnson, Lisa Fenstermacher, and Nick Locicero all do good work in the smaller roles.

The single graffiti-covered set by Susan Roden is excellent, as are the sound by Casey Mraz, lighting by Cody Kelien, costumes by Marissa Johnson. I give a lot of credit to Vicki Liberatori for adapting and directing this play in such a way that I thoroughly enjoyed it throughout. To be blunt, I wasn't looking forward to another production of Measure for Measure, but Vicki did such a good job with it that I realize that it's a better play than I remembered it to be and I highly recommend it. This is the second in Aux Dog's annual "Shakespeare 505" series. For those not from around here, 505 is the area code for Albuquerque and much of New Mexico (we only have two area codes in the whole state). I'm looking forward to next year's installment, whatever it may be.

Measure 4 Measure, the play by William Shakespeare as adapted by VJ Liberatori, through May 6, 2018, at Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill, Monte Vista Blvd. NE, just north of Central, Albuquerque NM. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets $8 to $20. For tickets and information, visit