“Measure for Measure” by Ten Thousand Things Theater Company at Open Book

Sonja Parks and Luverne Seifert in TTT’s “Measure for Measure.”

Ten Thousand Things Theater Company (TTT) has just opened a wonderfully tantalizing offering that is likely to invite discussion—once again—about Shakespeare’s “problem play,” his dark comedy, Measure for Measure.

The plot turns on sinister questions. After learning that he jilted his intended bride, Mariana, when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, the Duke (Suzanne Warmanen)  becomes suspicious of her deputy’s true nature and sets a trap for Angelo (Luverne Seifert) by leaving him in charge. In the Duke’s presumed absence, Angelo sentences Claudio (Nathan Barlow) to death for fornication– unless Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Sonja Parks), who aspires to be a nun, will surrender her virtue to him.

You can talk all you like about how this play served as a transition between Shakespeare’s earlier, lighter comedies and the later tragedies, but it really doesn’t matter all that much in terms of this particular performance. That’s because TTT, with artistic director Michelle Hensley leading the charge, seems to truly believe in a play as a whole new creation. I’m sure they are diligent about their dramaturgy, but I get the sense that they do their research and move on. And that is as it should be.

Measure for Measure is indeed a good play, when one thinks of Shakespeare’s comedies, for modern audiences. We like “dark.” We get that. We are strung along, (and along, and along) in this play with the darkness. There is no real tragedy in the end, but we are taken to the brink before an unusual sort of justice is served.

Because we know so much more than the characters know, we are allowed to be removed enough to examine the larger questions on a more intellectual level, able to observe at some distance the relative good or bad of mostly innocuous “crimes,” (such as consensual sex) just as Shakespeare’s characters in this play argue them. Nonconsensual is another matter. “Is it her fault or mine? The tempted or the temptress,” Angelo says when Isabella leaves him. Sadly, this statement alone can generate plenty of heated discussion still today.

There were many fine performances in this ensemble cast. Warmanen gives a strong portrayal of a ruler faced with a challenging dilemma. Barlow is affable and charming as the young lover, although not quite as convincing doubling as the comical police officer, Elbow.

Parks needed to store up a little of her toughness for her turning points. A little more of the beatific in our introduction to her would have better suited her earlier moments in the play. But she gave us a magnificent scene with Claudio in his prison cell. Her face dripping with tears, her feisty temper bubbling over, she holds fast, in spite of her brother’s argument that “saving a human life becomes a virtue.”

The heavy stuff, however, alternates with some of the doofiest scenes in any Shakespeare play. Seifert not only plays the bad guy, he’s the ridiculous Pompey, as well, and deftly switches from slicked back hair and buttoned up jacket, to greasy bangs, a loose shirt, and a looser mouth for Pompey’s hilarious interactions.  It actually took me a couple of scenes to connect the two with Seifert. He was that good.

Part of the pleasure of watching this as a play, is the skill with which the actors all played more than one character. There was no attempt to “fool” us. In fact, the opposite was true. There was no way of disguising the towering and substantial Zach Curtis, for example. He plays Lucio, Claudio’s friend, and two other characters. He’s versatile enough to do that, certainly, but he’s as distinctive a presence on a stage as you’re going to find.

Additionally, we are supposed to believe that Angelo can mistake Mariana (Karen Wiese-Thompson) for Isabella, when the two aren’t remotely alike, physically. But we can buy that Angelo wants to believe what he wants to believe, and Mariana deserves to have his promise to her consummated. And that’s the point.

There’s a purity in TTT’s style of theater. Its purpose is not to draw attention to the method as to help the play speak to the audience watching it. Not everything worked—there were a couple of casting puzzlers—but I so appreciate that Hensley is willing to risk it. Far better to do that than play it safe, just to play it safe. When the actors and director are skilled, passionate and reading off the same philosophical page, walking the line makes for dynamic and exciting theater.

And if the measure of a successful performance is its ability to reveal larger truths, this show is a smash—with a deliciously satisfying visual “button” to tie it all up in the end. Measure for Measure runs though October 21.

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