ASP Delivers First Rate, Contemporary ‘Measure For Measure’ (4.5 Stars)

MEASURE FOR MEASURE – Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Scenic Design by Megan F. Kinneen; Lights by Chris Bocchiaro; Costumes by Miranda Kau Giurleo; Sound by David Reiffel; Vocal Coaching by Christine Hamel.¬†Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Multicultural Arts Center on 41 Second Street in Cambridge through February 1st.

“Measure For Measure”, presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, is another local production making creative use of an historical, repurposed venue. Held in the former Middlesex County Courthouse, built by noted architect Charles Bulfinch, the atrium surrounds an image embossed on the floor of the foyer of the blindfolded Justice holding her scales, feet pointing to a clever use of hanging ropes to create a jail cell. It is a fitting setting to a story about the justness of laws, the meting out of punishments, and how absolute power can corrupt absolutely. The intense action of this play leaves no time for applause until the end of each act, which goes by quickly, moved swimmingly along by laughter and chuckles from the audience.

In the elegant theatrical hall, this comedy of affairs, power, life and death opens with notes from the artistic director and actors, explaining the setting and the fire exits almost simultaneously. Duke Vincentio, in charge of this fictional world, feels he has done a bad job at governing, so he pretends to leave the city, only to disguise himself and spy on his subjects. He leaves the unyielding Lord Angelo in charge to see that the laws are followed to the letter. His first decision is to incarcerate Claudio and Juliet for having an affair (resulting in pregnancy) before marriage. Claudio is sentenced to death, and his chaste sister, Isabella, a nun, pleads with Angelo for mercy. When she does, Angelo propositions her and she has to decide whether her virginity is worth her brother’s salvation. A plot is hatched for Isabella to agree to the liaison, but to substitute Mariana, the woman formerly betrothed to Angelo and left at the altar when her dowry went down with a ship. Mariana’s substitution in this out of wedlock tryst sets up the “eye for an eye” that is “Measure For Measure”.

Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, this lively version of Shakespeare’s comedy, transcending time periods and places, goes from classic suit and tie businessmen to the hip-hop, streetwise hoodie-wearing teens. Actors exploit all manner of physical comedy, men and women engaging in a friendly competition of “how low can you go” splits and even classical ballet poses. Though clouds float across the cathedral ceiling in fair Vienna, the themes of questionable laws and tyrannical officials translate into contemporary times, easily matched by “I can’t breath” and “Black Lives Matter” protests currently in the news.

Four actors play only one role. Michael Forden Walker is Vincentio, and an incognito friar when he borrows a habit and bolo hat from Friar Peter (Jared Michael Brown). Thomas Grenon (Escalus) is Justice, the wise councilor and fair deliverer of laws. The fact that he is a minor character may be Shakespeare’s commentary on the judicial system – justice is only in the background to the main events of life and law.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Lord Angelo) is quickly becoming one of my favorite local actors, having recently seen him as Belize in Angels in America. His ability to move from hilarious comedy of Belize to seriousness of Angelo shows a skilled breadth of performance. When Angelo speaks his soliloquy, I could feel the schizophrenic quality of his “should I or shouldn’t I want Isabella” options as he considers becoming a “virgin violator.” Adrianna Mitchell (Isabella) delivers her lines with the passion of the church and desire of Shakespeare. She perfectly exudes innocence in her religious bearing and chaste love for her brother.

The remaining four members of the cast cleverly portray fourteen other characters, each so well drawn that the ensemble seems to extend beyond its eight actors. The costumes and character transformations make the roles clear, so I could follow the story in all its foolery. While some of the minor characters’ storylines are not essential to the plot or message, their portrayal is worth noting. Sarah Newhouse’s Mistress Overdone is quite overdone with her Boston accent and a hoot as she struts and smokes her cigarette. Later, she is the Provost who (thankfully) does not follow orders. Johnnie McQuarley’s Lucio has great lines, like when complaining, “marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging,” but it is his Jamaican talking Barnardine that made me laugh. Lydia Barnett-Mulligan’s portrayal of Pompey, a young boy, is believable and funny. And finally, Jared Michael Brown is fabulous in all his roles and a key player in the humor as Elbow, and in the plot as Claudio; however, I loved his Friar Peter in gold chains. He could have been a contemporary hip-hop artist.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE, with its multiracial cast in this Multicultural Arts Center, asks questions about fair laws and justice. It is another reminder that Shakespeare is truly timeless as it begs an answer to “Who sins the most, the tempter or the tempted?” For more info, go to: http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/