October 21, 2014

The Hippie Bard? Measure for Measure, Shakespeare in the 1960s

 

PHOTO BY IAN FLANDERS

The Hippie Bard? <i>Measure for Measure</b>, Shakespeare in the 1960s

Colin Simon (l) as the ill-fated Claudio, sentenced to death for misegenation, consults with his pregnant lover, Juliet (Crystal Clark) (r), while the dissolute, lecherous Lucio, splendidly played by Melora Marshall (center), offers support.

Peter Alsop plays folk music as theater-goers walk past greenery and up a wooded path on their way to Topanga’s Theatricum Botanicum.

On the left, in front of the outdoor amphitheater is a red VW van, adorned with peace signs and colorful crazy-daisies, containing a burst of flower children inside.

Wearing a flowery top and peasant skirt ala Haight-Ashbury, a young woman (Taylor Jackson Ross) breaks into a hearty-throated rendition of Bobbie McGee: “Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose / Nothing don't mean nothing honey if it ain't free.”

A young mother carries a sign, “War isn’t healthy for children or other living things.” A soldier in a wheelchair brandishes “Vets for Peace.” A group of women raise a placard, “Equal pay = rights!” As the evening performance starts, the large cast leads the audience in a group rendition of “1, 2, 3, 4 — What are we Fighting For?”

And so begins the summer 2012 season at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum with a recasting of Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, in the year 1968.

Directed by Ellen Geer, the play romps and rolls its way into the audience’s consciousness with all the trippy elegance and in-your-face energy of a public protest against the Vietnam War or a day in People’s Park.

This is not “usual” Shakespeare. It is unique in its contemporary vibrancy, and it is also topical, thoughtful and gut-wrenchingly funny. It is the perfect play to take someone who normally shies away from serious plays by the Bard.

Director Geer explains, “The 60’s were all about change. It was an era that saw people becoming actively involved [with causes such as] women’s rights, religious freedoms and the emergence of Black and Latino pride.”

Measure for Measure deals with concerns that are just as relevant today as they were during Shakespeare’s time and the turbulent 1960’s: sex, liberation, race, and the death penalty, as well as the definition of mercy, justice, and truth.

The central theme of Measure for Measure revolves around the fate of Claudio (Colin Simon), a white citizen of Vienna, who is taken into custody by the temporary governor, Angelo (Adam Mondschein), when the governor, Vincentio (Aaron Hendry), puts him in charge in his absence.

In turn, Vincentio acts as if he is going to leave the city, but, instead dons a disguise as a poor friar so he can move about the community freely to observe whether the laws of the land are appropriate and effective.

A direct opposite to the gentle governor, Angelo is militant, self-righteous and devious. As his first act in office, he determines the people of Vienna are morally lax and “loose,” so he takes action to dispel prostitutes, close brothels and stop unlawful sexual activity.

Angelo does not pass new laws; he merely enforces archaic regulations which had not been enforced: “We have strict statutes and most biting laws / The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds / Which for this nineteen years we have let slip.”

Thus, young Claudio is arrested for impregnating his black lover, Juliet (Crystal Clark), before they are wed. Made to be an example, Claudio is sentenced to death for this “crime.” Isabella (Willow Geer), Claudio's sister, a Catholic novice, hears of her brother’s plight and leaves the convent to beg Angelo for mercy.

Throughout the play, Vincentio is depicted with much restraint by Aaron Hendry (resembling Kevin Costner in the film JFK) alongside the militant Angelo, portrayed intelligently by Mondschein.

The assistant governor, Escalus, is rendered by Gillian Doyle in an equally warm and moderate, yet commanding manner, speaking these predictive words: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

In addition, Melora Marshall, in her gender-bending interpretation of the dissolute Lucio, a bachelor acquaintance of Claudio, is spot on with timing and physical comedy. Lucio is the picture-perfect cad, a fascinating mixture of louse, liar, sneaky go-between, good friend, womanizer, letch and dandy, uttering one of the key lines in the play, “Our doubts are traitors/And make us lose the good we oft might win/By fearing to attempt.”

Willow Geer turns in a sincere portrayal of Isabella, stretching between utter desolation and outrage in one moment. Other notable cast members include Kevin Connolly as a lively Friar Thomas, and Earnestine Phillips as Mrs. Overdone. Her songs brought down the house.

Throughout the play, questions abound: Is the state corrupt? Are its laws indulgent or too strict? Are its people getting away with murder? Do ancient laws fit the changing needs of the people? Do government leaders bend regulations to foster their own purpose rather than for the purpose of the greater good? Truth? Mercy? Peace? Love?

These inquiries could be asked in 2012, a notion which makes, perhaps Measure for Measure all the more topical and thought-provoking.

Performances run June 2 through Sept. 30 at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N Topanga Canyon Blvd. 90290; (310) 455-3723; wwwtheatricum.com

Tickets: $33 (lower tier); $20 (upper tier); Seniors, students, equity: $20/$18; Children 7-12: $10, under 6, Free. Picnickers are welcome before and after shows. Snacks are available at intermission at the Hamlet Hut. The audience is advised to dress warmly in layers (since summer evenings can get chilly). Bring pillows or cushions for the bench seating.