Ill Will: From left, Janice Robinson, Lindsey Anderson, Greg London and Andrew Pringle in Measure for Measure.

An Update Named Disaster

We tumbled out into the chilly courtyard of ASU's Galvin Playhouse, my friends, colleagues and I, where we were quickly joined by the audience for the school's current horror, a bald misrepresentation of the all-time worst Shakespeare comedy in the Bard's canon.

It was intermission, and my companions' faces were creased with sleep, their eyes filled with enough crust for several cobblers. Not everyone had slept through the interminable first act of Measure for Measure, and those who had stayed awake were holding their stomachs and moaning, or weeping and shouting in dismay over what they'd just seen. All around us, people were fleeing, mewling and puking as they headed for the parking lot. Some were running.

My companion -- who has accompanied me to some pretty terrible theater over the years but never uttered a word of complaint -- pointed toward the theater lobby and said, "I'm not going back in there."

I caught up with him later, and we marveled at the steaming pile we'd witnessed. I wanted to tell him that the second act had improved on the first, but I couldn't. My friend had only one question: "Who were those people?"

I couldn't tell him, because no programs were handed out at this performance. The official reason given, that "the printing press broke down," was as preposterous as the production itself. I'm guessing that no playbills were issued because none of the principles wanted their names linked to this flatulent fiasco. This was the last scrap of good sense displayed by any of the people involved. If this is educational theater, then the lesson here must be to never, ever hand Shakespeare to children who are too young (or too untalented) to handle it.

Part of the trouble with Measure for Measure is that it's a lousy play. The comedy isn't funny, and the tragic scenes are alternately ridiculous or disgusting. Its central story of a woman who can save her brother (who has knocked up his girlfriend) from the gallows by marrying the presiding Lord Deputy is perplexing, even if you're up on your Shakespeare: Where one might expect the lass to gladly give her virtue to save her brother, she tells him instead that he'd better die, because her virginity is more valuable than his life. Oh, that wacky Will.

Director Beverly Smith Dawson has moved the action from 17th-century Vienna to 1960s New Orleans, where she might have drawn some parallels between the sexual misconduct of the story and the sexy backdrop of Mardi Gras. She doesn't. We're left to wonder what sexual revelry, cross-dressing, and a lounge-like rendition of "The Look of Love" have to do with a story of sleaze and sexual harassment. Furthermore, why -- if this is 20th-century America -- are people being beheaded for their crimes?

I can't be the only person who's weary of contemporized Shakespeare, and I know I'm not alone in my contempt for those who dare to read his work badly. Here, the mush-mouthed kids who plow through Old Will's speeches clearly have no idea what they're saying, or why. Neither, therefore, do we. It doesn't help that they've been asked to bleat their lines in vaguely Cajun accents, a fact that further obliterates their readings. This is all very entertaining if one yearns to hear Shakespeare as imagined by Tennessee Williams; otherwise, it's a disgrace. "For my own bowels, which call to thee, Sire," indeed.

Dawson has mucked up her casting, as well. She's cast an African-American as Claudio, the fellow condemned to death for impregnating Juliet, who's played here by a white woman. This might have made for interesting commentary on racial issues, except that Dawson has cast a white woman as Isabella, Claudio's sister. Huh?

There is a moment, toward the end of the first act, when Isabella laments all that is going on around her. (In this particular production, I couldn't see Isabella as she made this speech, because bad blocking and the monstrous set design obscured her entirely from the audience's view. But I know it was Isabella because I've read the play.) "To whom should I complain?" Isabella cries out. "Did I tell this, who would believe me?"

No one, I wanted to tell her. Not a soul.

ASU Department of Theatre's Measure for Measure continues through Sunday, March 12, at the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse, 10th Street and Mill in Tempe.


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