By George Heymont, Contributor, San Francisco-based arts critic, published Sept. 23, 2017
How many times can someone move to another apartment or rearrange the furniture? Change their wardrobe or get another nip and tuck? To what lengths will a person go to put a little more spring in their step, get more bounce to the ounce, or more bang for their buck? Will they learn anything from the process or just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over?
Makeovers are costly; their results cannot always be undone. But because a script is no more than a road map with good writing, updating a well-known theatrical property (be it a comedy, tragedy, or opera) offers directors and designers a chance to wipe the slate clean and see if a well-established tale can survive a makeover in order to attract newer (and presumably younger) audiences.
Bottom line: nothing ventured, nothing gained (assuming the property in question is within the public domain or the project’s creative team has been given a green light by the playwright or whoever is handling the author’s estate). An updated production can move the story to another time and place or switch out the race and gender of actors playing certain roles.
Whatever cosmetic changes are made (which can include cuts in the script), audiences must decide whether a new director and designer are trying to find the dramatic truth of the story or merely attempting to impose their egos on someone else’s art in order to generate controversy.
Two recent productions were in the planning stage long before Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. And yet, in a perverse way, they have no trouble making audiences think about the eternal dangers of corruption, bitterness, violence, and injustice. While critics are called upon to respond to re-interpretations of long-established works, it’s wise to remember the old adage that “opinions are like assholes — everybody’s got one.”
The first recorded performance of William Shakespeare’s political dramedy, Measure for Measure, took place in 1604. California Shakespeare Theater is topping off its 2017 season with Tyne Rafaeli’s updated staging of this play (a co-production with Santa Cruz Shakespeare) about the dangers of authoritarianism. With costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, a highly effective unit set designed by Annie Smart, and multiple actors tackling multiple roles, this production requires audiences to pay close attention to the proceedings.
Our nation’s tradition of a peaceful transfer of power from one President to another has often been hailed as the bedrock of American government. But think back to the anguished emotions people felt in the aftermath of last year’s election when it became evident that a respected and beloved President who had led the nation through numerous crises with grace, dignity, and an administration free of scandal, would be replaced by a contemptible, vindictive thug.
Just when it seemed as if the proverbial arc of the moral universe was starting to bend toward justice, our government did a 180-degree pivot to bullying, incompetence, and economic cruelty. Seemingly overnight, reason, science, and a sense of responsibility for the common good were replaced with a toxic blend of rampant prejudice, hyperreligiosity, insatiable greed, pathologic lying, and political corruption. As Eric Ting (the artistic director of CalShakes) asks:
“What possesses a person to lead? Is it ego? Power? The opportunity to do good? A sense of responsibility? Perhaps it’s an inherited right or it’s thrust upon them. What does it mean to be led? To put faith in another, to hold them accountable for your livelihood, your family’s livelihood. Sometimes we look to our leaders to define boundaries so we can exist comfortably within them. And when that comfort is disrupted, it is often replaced by fear.”
“Director Tyne Rafaeli recognized that Measure for Measure begins first and foremost with one man’s decision to hand over power; and in that moment of regime change, uncertainty seizes the world. The boundaries are effectively redrawn. In moments such as this, the impulse might be to turn within, to look the other way, to retreat into the safety of our homes. But not everyone is afforded such refuge. Do we in that moment accept the edict of our leaders? Or do we look within and become leaders ourselves? Do we meet the urge to fall back with a vision of possibility or do we stand up for what we believe in? Do we take our power back?”
Consider the predicaments of those who thrived under the benevolent leadership of the Duke (an Obama-like figure) to those newly threatened by the rigid dictates of Angelo (a figure who uses the law as a strict and unforgiving tool rather than letting it be open to interpretation).
•Because her dowry was lost at sea, Angelo has refused to marry his betrothed (Marianne) even though he has already had sex with her.
•Claudio is doomed by a legal technicality to be beheaded in three days because he married Juliet and got her pregnant without finishing all of the necessary paperwork.
•Claudio’s sister, Isabella (who had been planning to enter a convent), learns that the only way she can save her brother’s life is to sacrifice her soul by letting Angelo claim her virginity.
•Mistress Overdone (who operates a popular brothel) is in peril of losing her livelihood simply because her business is located in a suburb of Vienna.
Kevin Matthew Reyes alternated between portraying Claudio and Mistress Overdone’s pimp, Pompey; while Adam Schroeder scored comic points as Lucio and Abhorson the executioner (there’s a double meaning to this name depending on how you pronounce it). Clad in a dark green military uniform with storm-trooper boots, David Graham Jones was appropriately menacing as Angelo while Lindsay Rico’s impassioned Isabella tried to maintain her purity.
While the goal of Shakespeare’s intricate plotting is to expose Angelo’s hypocrisy, there are so many twists and turns during the course of the play that it is easy to get disoriented as numerous actors leap in and out of different characters. The most versatile of these were Annie Worden (as Mistress Overdone, Elbow, Mariana, and Barnadine), Tristan Cunningham (as Escalus, Juliet, and Francisca), and Patty Gallagher (as Provost, Froth, and other minor characters).
As the Duke who states “I have seen corruption boil and bubble till it o’er-run the stew,” a bespectacled Rowan Vickers made this critic long for a return of the cool-headed, logical wisdom of Barack Obama as an authority figure who can mete out justice with a sense of fairness and wisdom. The production also benefited from Kent Dorsey’s lighting and Brandon Walcott’s sound design.
Did Measure for Measure survive an updated directorial approach? Absolutely. Did Shakespeare’s 413-year-old play remain relevant to modern audiences? Without a doubt (I was especially delighted to hear the word “bawd“ brought back to life). Performances of Measure for Measure continue through October 8 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda.