In Theatricum Botanicum's "Measure for Measure," trickster… (Ian Flanders )
That perennial harbinger of summer — Shakespeare in the great outdoors — is once again upon us, as one of the Southland’s spectacularly scenic venues, the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, launches its repertory season with a very-Topanga late-'60s take on “Measure for Measure.”
With its uneasy “problem play” perch between comedy and tragedy, “Measure” often works well in modern resettings, and this freewheeling adaptation is a fine example, finding contextual parallels that shrewdly illuminate the play’s darker purpose. In particular, its political and social criticisms handily lend themselves to the protest movements and cultural upheaval of the Vietnam War era.
Ellen Geer’s staging is an immersive psychedelic flashback, complete with hippies in full regalia, Black Power activists, peace marches, a folk rock combo strumming protest anthems by Bob Dylan and Country Joe and the Fish, and other golden oldies from the Summer of Love. While considerable liberties are taken with the text — the result sometimes plays like the unmetered love child of Shakespeare and “Hair” — only die-hard purists could fail to appreciate the production’s thoughtful whimsy and clarity.
In the transposed plot, a California governor (Aaron Hendry) with an inconsistent law enforcement record temporarily cedes power to military strongman Col. Angelo (Adam Mondschein), then circulates among the people disguised as a humble friar to assess his stand-in’s performance. In the resulting authoritarian crackdown, the colonel sentences young Claudio (Colin Simon) to death for his out-of-wedlock tryst with Juliet (Crystal Clark), who is both pregnant and black (which may seem like gilding Shakespeare’s transgression lily, but it’s a pointed reminder that it wasn’t until a 1967 Supreme Court ruling that anti-miscegenation laws in this country were struck down as unconstitutional).
The play’s cynical jabs at political and sexual hypocrisy still resonate. Col. Angelo’s coercion and borderline sexual assault on virtuous Isabella (excellent Willow Geer) cuts through the frivolity with a startlingly creepy tonal shift. Hendry’s governor, for all his more benign intentions, remains a politician not all that different from Angelo in his calculating and manipulative tactics; only at the play’s end does his cavalier toying with others’ lives yield to his heart’s impulses.
Serious themes notwithstanding, the prevailing mood remains buoyant and fun throughout, thanks to several first-rate comic performances from some of the longtime Theatricum regulars — notably Earnestine Phillips as a soul sister madame, Gerald C. Rivers as her pimped-out partner, and Charlie Howell as an inebriated, unrepentant condemned prisoner.
Stealing the show, however, is gender-switched Melora Marshall, as lecherous, pot-puffing gadfly Lucio, in whose hilarious comeuppance Shakespeare cautions that matrimony can be a sentence more to be feared than execution — as so many can attest to this day.
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“Measure for Measure,” Will Geer Thetricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Runs in repertory, check theater for schedule. Ends Sept. 1. $33. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.