William Shakespeare’s, “Measure for Measure,” written around1604, takes its title from a passage in Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Or, as the Beatles sang in 1969, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." Appropriately enough, the sexy sixties are also the decade in which Theatricum Botanicum has placed its latest staging of “Measure for Measure.” What’s more, the Fab Four’s couplet not only coincides with the themes set forth in The Bard’s convoluted comedy, it’s also the sentiment that plays-out in the show.
Amidst protesters in tie-dye (costuming by Erica D. Schwartz), bearing signs and posters calling for peace, love, and whatever else, the Duke of Vienna, Vincentio (an articulate Aaron Hendry), becomes concerned about what his people think of his ability as ruler. In order to discover the truth of the matter, the Duke grants governing authority to his zealous second-in-command, Angelo (a convincingly conniving Adam Mondschein); he is to enforce the unpopular morality laws of the day, as the Duke flees on royal sabbatical.
Actually, however, Duke Vincetio becomes a sort of undercover boss, disguising himself as a provincial monk in order to get a reading on the people’s state of mind with regard to their extant state of governance.
Of course, Angelo’s moralistic relentlessness causes an uproar among the populace, especially when Claudio (a handsomely competent Colin Simon) is sentenced to death for impregnating his fiancé,Juliet (a comely Crystal Clark). In this particular scenario miscegenation becomes a palpable part of the subtext: Juliet is black; Claudio is white.
After Claudio’s casual acquaintance, the slick and slimy Lucio (played with gender-bending hilarity by Melora Marshall), informs Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Willow Geer in a fiery portrayal) of Claudio’s incarceration, she comes to Angelo to plead for her beloved sibling’s life. Initially impervious to her pleas, Angelo quickly and hypocritically becomes infatuated with Isabella and propositions her with this offer: He will grant Claudio a reprieve on the condition that Isabella engages in an amorous tryst with him, the makeshift monarch.
Isabella, a novice nun, nobly rebukes Angelo’s unseemly attempt at seduction, declaiming that “chastity and honor” are her life. Upon visiting her imprisoned brother, Isabella discloses the dirty deal offered by the substitute governor. Claudio, who at first is grateful to Isabella for preserving her honor, rapidly recants his opinion. As the hour of his execution nears, Claudio urges his sister to yield to Angelo’s offer.
With cleverly kinetic direction by Ellen Geer, drenched in the colorful haze of 1960s nostalgia – a period-perfect VW bus is actually in on the premises, as sixty’s protest anthems, such as Country Joe McDonald’s “What Are We Fighting For?” waft through the action alive, aloud and melodically – this company and crew has renewed and, even, enlivened Shakespeare’s original notions (which he purportedly borrowed from a true-life tale from 1547 Italy).
In this huge cast there are many standouts, including Gillian Doyle in the traditionally male role of Escalus; Gerald C. Rivers as the purple-clad pimp, Pompey; the vocally powerful Earnestine Phillips as Mrs. Overdone; Thomas Ashworth as the clownish constable called Elbow; and Charlie Howell in a memorable turn as the insistently inebriated Barnardine.
While “Measure for Measure” is considered one of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays – the great playwright and sonneteer has been accused by modern day drama critics of abandoning this script; after all, it is not a tidily tied plotline by any means – the pleasure of seeing this army of actors, supported by a platoon of technicians and craftspeople, perform words written more than four-centuries ago by the utmost wordsmith in the English language is an unrivaled experience.
Measure for Measure continues at the lush outdoor venue known as The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum – 1419 Topanga Canyon Boulevard, Topanga – through September 1. For reservations, dial (310) 455 – 3723. For schedules and online ticketing, visit www.theatricum.com