At the height of his playwriting career, with the dear memory of Hamlet still green and with some untender lines of King Lear starting to stir, Shakespeare debuted a darkly amusing little morality fable called Measure For Measure. As with many of the Bard’s best works, the play is balanced somewhere between comedy and tragedy, opening with a string of upsetting scenarios but, by the later acts, averting disaster with some classic comic derring-do. Taffety Punk stages it all with cheeky vigor this month, and although the ropes feel a little slack at times, they’ve pulled together a serviceable and heartfelt version over at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
The story is simple enough. The compassionate Duke of Vienna sees his city falling to sexual depravity and moral corruption. Finding himself in a Shakespeare play, he resolves to disguise himself and disappear into the depths of the city, where he can witness how the ambitious judge Angelo might have a go at fixing everything. But Angelo is unexpectedly severe. He muscles harsher laws into place, scrubbing at the secret recesses of red-light Vienna with the municipal equivalent of a Brillo pad. As usual, it doesn’t bode well for the free spirits.
Angelo sentences the bright-eyed young Claudio to death for fornication, since Claudio has bedded his beloved Juliet before their wedding day (her name really should have tipped him off to trouble). So Claudio’s sister, the young nun Isabella, finds herself pleading with Angelo to spare the life of her brother. But for all his stark moralizing, Angelo has demons too. The ultimatum: Isabella must sleep with Angelo, or allow Claudio to die. What’s a chaste virgin daughter of God to do?
Taffety Punk is a group well positioned to explore the play’s potent issues of sexual and political power. They reside in the storied land of Capitol Hill, where Measure For Measure’s basic civic premise comes to life every four years. They also perform here with an all-female cast, as with their Romeo and Juliet last season (that show, too, featured Lise Bruneau’s direction), which opens up chances to explore gender, empowerment, and all other forms of love and forbidden lust (given the plot, Sexual Perversity in Vienna would have been a catchier title).
It’s a shame, then, that one leaves the show still hungering for a substantial message. The actors certainly have chops. The majority pours genuine heart into the characters, and they wring admirable fear and tension out of some challenging verse. But for a play with such juicy themes, this staging of Measure For Measure doesn’t put much trust in its own sexuality, nor is it guided by a clear statement about the benefits of women assuming men’s roles.
Judging from the show’s publicity, and from comments by Taffety Punk’s founders, the company is excited to be letting talented DC actresses take up roles for which they wouldn’t typically be considered. It’s a commendable endeavor, with a humbling purity of logic. Even so, an all-girl cast does not a production concept make, and the show slips and slides across the stage because it lacks the teeth to intentionally frighten, provoke, or anger its viewers.
To paraphrase Angelo: I must condemn the fault, and not the actor of it. The cast members pull their own weight, riding a wave of hammy, punk charisma (particularly Kate Debelack as the rowdy barman Pompey, who keeps wandering away from dialogue to schmooze with the front row), but the show lacks a guiding philosophy of sex, namely: who embodies it, when, how, and to what consequence?
A single-sex ensemble is an intriguing starting point, but as with any instance of narrowed casting in which the director has decided to purposefully distance actor type from character type, more work is required to sincerely live the part. Taffety Punk is tasked with the exciting challenge of making women into men, as the Elizabethans once made men into women. And yet, most cross-cast players here, including Kimberly Gilbert as a nervous, boyish Angelo, occupy a hazy limbo state of androgyny.
To up the dramatic stakes, a side of the spectrum must be chosen: either the women-as-men hold onto that womanhood and play the drag gay, or someone has to wade more deeply into that sea of hormones that spurs men to abuse and destruction. Otherwise, the audience misses the chance to get caught up in the heat – to live the trial of the victimized and find reward in retribution.
From a design standpoint, the setting is ambiguous at best and, often, simply undefined. Two high wooden chairs on extended legs allow a few interesting chances for characters to climb up to – and down from – their places of power. Aside from those and a large, mysterious speaker that sits inert midstage, we might be anywhere from Vienna to Vegas. The costume design gets some freebies (it’s hard to keep a nun from looking like a nun) but there’s little rhyme or reason to the melange of suits, skirts, and sandals.
Snippets of ambient music arise – the cop-show street beats that play among the drunk and promiscuous have a groundling-pleasing sort of authenticity to them – but most of the music floats in a deadly faux-period land of flutes and lutes, teasing out inelegant and distracting melodies over crucial moments of drama. Girls playing boys is awesome, but a Casio playing acoustic string instruments… less awesome.
Despite these intermittent shortcomings, Taffety Punk’s Measure For Measure is undeniably fun, and given a marvelous cast that also includes Sheila Hennessey, Tonya Beckman Ross and Suzanne Richard, audiences will surely laugh and smile often. Pompey’s big sunglasses should be arrested for covering Debelack’s animated eyes. Richard’s portrayal of Elbow, an overeager constable spluttering malapropisms, has great conviction. Esther Williamson steps up to the challenges of playing Isabella, a girl of fervent ideals who hits back when the going gets tough.
Some characterizations misfire, and from time to time an actor will breeze past the full implication of an introspective moment. But all involved show range and conviction, which means the show is sprinkled with some unexpectedly funny line readings amid the scenes of rage and tears. Especially with ticket prices holding steady at ten dollars, Measure For Measure is certainly worth the trip.
The wise counselor Escalus speaks perhaps the play’s most famous line: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” As they grow out of their fledgling state, producing increasingly strong work while still retaining their sense of humor, Taffety Punk belongs in a third category: they, by virtue, are rising.
Measure for Measure
Directed by Lise Bruneau
Produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
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