Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Measure for Measure
Marin Shakespeare Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of The Year of Magical Thinking and Passion

Isabelle Grimm and Luisa Frasconi
Photo by Jay Yamada
It's not that easy to be depressed by one of Shakespeare's comedies. Their intricate plots, filled with lovers torn apart only to be reunited by final curtain, the silliness of the fools, the ridiculousness of disguises that prevent other characters from recognizing someone they know well, the doubles entendre, the bawdy jokes—all usually combine to create an atmosphere of fun and merriment. What's depressing about Marin Shakespeare Company's production of Measure for Measure is not the acting (though there were some weak spots) or the direction (crisply accomplished by Robert Currier) or the liberties the company takes with the Bard's text (adding spoken word, hip-hop poetry as transitions between some scenes, and throwing some contemporary vernacular in with the iambic pentameter). No, what's depressing about Measure for Measure is how so little seems to have changed in the nearly 500 years in terms of how justice is meted out, how false piety often wreaks true cruelty, and how laws apply one way to the poor, and another to the wealthy.

Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna and concerns the Duke (Vincentio, recast here as a judge, and played with a vigorous sincerity by Patrick Russell), who pretends to leave town to see how the much stricter Judge Angelo (Joseph Patrick O'Malley) will rule in his absence. (This being a Shakespeare comedy, Vincentio decides to disguise himself—as a friar—so he can observe Judge Angelo's actions.)

Judge Angelo immediately sets about enforcing laws that heretofore had been given little attention—specifically, moral laws, Angelo being a supposedly pious and patriotic man, one who wears a cross around his neck and a flag pin in his lapel. (The setting is contemporary, so Angelo wears a three-piece suit, there are American flags on display in his office, and the set is designed to mimic San Quentin.)

In order to protect the good Christian morals of the people of Vienna, Judge Angelo decides to close all the brothels—until he gets pushback from some of the brothel's rich clientele, and then he chooses to leave a few open and close only those outside the city walls. These, of course, serve the more impoverished Viennese. And since premarital sex is also a crime (punishable by death), Judge Angelo chooses to make an example of young Claudio (the handsome and talented Brennan Pickman-Thoon), who has impregnated the lovely Juliette (Julia Saunders). Though they were in fact married, all the legalities had not been completed (while awaiting a dowry), so under the strict letter of the law, they are unwed and Claudio is handcuffed and perp-walked to prison and his orange jumpsuit. As Angelo states, "We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting it up to fear the birds of prey, and let it keep one shape, til custom make it their perch and not their terror."

Of course, this being a comedy, Claudio will not lose his head, and love and justice will triumph—but only after tricks, subterfuge, and close calls. Yet the play, and specifically this production, remind us that all may not end well for many of our fellow citizens who suffer under the yoke of a justice system that does not apply its strictures in equal measure. For, as the program (and pre-show talk) remind us, the United States contains only 5% of the world's population, yet houses 25% of the world's prisoners, the majority of whom are people of color.

Though the cast is uneven, with some playing the comedy far too broadly (Neil Thollander chews his parts—Elbow, Friar Peter, and Barnadine—with the ferocity of a terrier, leaving them in tatters), others take a more subtle and successful approach. Steven Price's asides (as Escalus) to the audience are delivered with perfect comic timing and a delicate raise of an eyebrow or sideways glance that give the Bard's lines an extra kick and get the audience roaring.

Joseph Patrick O'Malley, who was wonderful in Aurora Theatre's production of Caryl Churchill's A Number but less appealing in their take on Strindberg's Creditors, takes full charge here and delivers a wonderful performance of a not-so-wonderful character. His Judge Angelo is falsely pious, completely lacking in empathy, and wraps himself in the flag of patriotism with no indication of love for anything but himself and his own desires. (As Craig Ferguson used to say in his monologues on "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," "remind you of anyone?") When his advances on Claudio's sister Isabella (Luisa Frasconi in a tender and touching performance), who has come to plead for mercy for her brother, are rebuffed, and Angelo begins to force his desires, the show becomes as much about #MeToo and believing women as it is about inequities of injustice.

Ultimately, this Measure for Measure is a cautionary tale of the corrupt use of power, but hidden inside a sweet story of love and the eternal fight for justice.

Measure for Measure, through July 21, 2019, at Marin Shakespeare Company, Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael CA. Show times are 8:00pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 4:00pm and 8:00pm on Sundays. Ticket prices are $38 general, $35 senior, and $10-12 for youth 25 and under. More information is available by calling 415-499-4488 or at