It may not always be illuminating, but there is such talent and clarity of story in the Honest Fishmongers production of Measure for Measure it is never a ‘problem’.
The morality in 17th century Vienna has gotten a little lax, but rather than try to rein it in himself, the Duke decides to delegate that task to his underlings Angelo and Escalus. With a puritanical hand, Angelo resurrects a previously unused law that condemns Claudio to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. Despite taking a moral high-ground, Angelo lusts after Claudio’s sister Isabella, trying to convince her that the only way to save her brother is to have sex with him. But even with her brother’s life in the balance, Isabella just can’t do it. Of course, the big ruse here is that the Duke has not actually left Vienna, and with a huge case of his own questionable morals secretly manipulates the action disguised as a Friar.
Measure for Measure is so rife with moral ambiguity that if we had not been told it takes place in 17th century Vienna, one might be forgiven in thinking that it was set in a pre-Berlusconi Italy where a little “bunga bunga” is both reviled and celebrated.
To underline that moral ambiguity, at the clap of their hands the actors plunge Shizuka Kai’s wonderful set into darkness and reach for lit candles arranged on pedestals at the four corners of the stage. While the result is a darkness that mirrors the sometimes equally dark story, it did seem at times a bit arbitrary.
It also made it difficult to see the actors, forcing us at times to rely on voices alone. And while this company is talented, there was still a marked difference between the scenes that were fully illuminated and those that were lit by candle alone. In fact, after Emmelia Gordon’s first big scene as Pompey, I yearned for more just like it – full of light where we could see all the nuance of character from this talented bunch.
Even as this they spend too much time literally and figuratively in the darkness, this cast is tremendous. And though I wished for a little more lechery early-on from Simon Webb’s Angelo, his contrition in the end is immensely heartfelt and a wonderfully redeeming moment in the play. Peter Anderson makes much of his Lucio and Julie McIsaac embraces the contradictions of her Isabella with skill. Michael Fera is a study in contrasts with a delightfully buffoonish Elbow and a tempered and reasonable Provost.
Christopher David Gauthier’s mix of modern and Jacobean dress works, but I do admit to feeling cheated from not having been given more from choreographer Lisa Goebel, who buoys an ending that could otherwise be flat.
As the lights go up on another inventive production, something of a hallmark for this audacious company, no doubt director Kevin Bennett is looking to the group’s next project. I for one would love to see what they could do with The Tempest.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Kevin Bennett. A Pacific Theatre presentation of an Honest Fishmongers production. On stage at Pacific Theatre through February 8, 2014. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.