OnStage California Critic
There are a handful of texts from William Shakespeare that some scholars consider “Problem Plays.” This label, whether it is deserved or not, often prevents theater artists and audiences to stay away from certain plays. It is an unfortunate phenomenon. However if one of these “Problem Plays” is staged with the right director and cast, the results can be quite engaging and entertaining. The Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s production of Measure For Measure, which opened on February 24th at the Richard Goad Theater, is a prime example of this.
For those not familiar the play it contains many of the same elements found in other Shakespeare’s works including mistaken identity, leaders and royalty disguising themselves as commoners, power struggles, and supporting comic characters to help relieve tension. The story centers around Duke Vincentio, after being absorbed in academic pursuits for many years, realizes that his city has embraced various vices and its citizens’ morality has become questionable. The Duke appoints Angelo, a supposed virtuous man of moral character, to govern the city as he tells his subjects that her plans travels abroad for an undisclosed amount of time. The Duke then disguises himself as a holy man and investigates his subjects’ behaviors and actions which leads to shocking, and sometimes hilarious results. In addition to this there is some biting satire centered around the Catholic church. The show contains additional comic sub plots highlighting humor the moral hypocrisy of the of supposedly virtuous higher class citizens. The most important sub plot centers around the character of Claudio, who has impregnated his fiancée and is sentenced to death for doing so. His sister Isabella, a virgin and woman of strong moral character, pleads for his life to the Duke’s Lord Deputy, Angelo, to spare his life. He is open to the request if Isabella is willing to give up her virginity. The play then follows her as she debates whether to follow through to save her brother’s life.
The Richard Goad Theater is an intimate space, around forty seats. The beauty of seeing Shakespeare in a space like this is that puts the language first and foremost. For many audiences, Shakespeare’s plays are produced on a grand scale, in an outdoor space, often paired with unnecessary spectacle, and the resetting/reimagining of the show in a different time period. LBSC bucks these trends and keeps Measure For Measure in the Elizabethan period with costumes and a familiar setting. This is effective because the text is ultimately the star here, which can get lost in certain modern interpretations. In addition to this director Helen Borgers expertly uses the intimate space with her fourteen actors. The show flows from scene to scene seamlessly and is paced well. It is the hallmark of an experienced stage veteran who knows what does and does not work on stage. In addition to this the light, sound, set and costume designers use the space well and do not impede or distract from the language. All the technical elements are well balanced.
While in good hands with a director of this caliber, the actors delivered quality performances that are both entertaining and engaging. The cast, containing actors of various levels of experience, work well together and seem very comfortable with the complex linguistic challenge that is Measure to Measure. While not being able to evaluate every actor’s performance here, there are several specific performances worth noting. Kyle McGruther as the Duke is fun to watch as weaves through the various sub plots and manipulates the various outcomes of the supporting characters. He conveys a genuine concern for his people that is both engaging and believable. Jesse Seann Atkinson, a LBSC regular, delivers a deliciously evil performance as Angelo. It would be very easy for many actors to portray this character as a one-dimensional villain. Jesse, on the other hand, brings a complexity to the role making his performance engaging.
The supporting cast, which includes other LSBC regulars Andy Kallok, Randi Tahra, Jessica Acuri, Ruby Morales and Ketty Citterio, deliver fun and charming characters throughout the sub plots of the show. This also includes newcomers Alexander Williams, Brian Caelleigh, Megan Lennon, Emily Hansen, Aziza Gabrielle Stewart and Sarah Hoeven. It is an old cliché that there are no small parts, just small actors. This certainly true of all the supporting roles.
The show certainly shines behind the performance of Amanda Swearingen as Isabella, sister to Claudio. Again this role could have easily become one dimensional with an emphasis on her as the victim. Amanda’s take on the character is much more of a woman of action and, towards the end of the show, truly becomes a crusader of justice. She brings a depth to the role that is not only engaging but highly believable. In an intimate space such as this, it can be quite a challenge to not slide into melodrama and make the character less believable. Amanda avoids this pitfall and delivers a sincere and heroic performance that keeps the audience in the palm of her hand. Hopefully she will return to the LBSC stage in future productions.
Overall Measure For Measure delivers an entertaining and engaging evening of theater. The show runs for four weeks through March 18th. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8pm, and Sunday matinees are at 2pm. (Please note there is no show Friday March 3rd). Tickets are available through the LBSC website lbshakespeare.org or call 562-997-1494. The cost is $22.50 for adults and $12.50 for students. The Richard Goad Theater is located at 4250 Atlantic Ave in Long Beach, California.