Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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A Full Measure

May 29, 2011

Frankie J. Alvarez and Kenajuan Bentley with Alejandra Escalante and Tyrone Wilson in the back Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2011.

It was cold and rainy when I woke up in Ashland, Oregon, on Saturday. And while it’s not ideal weather for the first weekend of summer, the Rogue Valley is one of those places in the world that retains its beauty regardless. The low clouds wrapped around the mountaintops that surround much of this town. Given the weather though, it was good to be indoors this weekend checking out what's in store on two of the three stages of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (The outdoor stage kicks off previews of this year's three productions next starting this coming week.) I started at the top with one of the company's the cornerstone Shakespeare productions for the year, Measure for Measure. Directed by Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the production fits in well with the expansive and fresh vision Rauch has laid out for the entire festival. The show veritably crackles with excitement and electricity. Yes, I am talking about Measure for Measure and I know that this is not a description typically associated with this thorny comedy. But I was grabbed from the minute the lights went down and continued to be surprised virtually all the way through.

The play is updated to the late 20th century in a quintessentially urban America that makes you think Shakespeare’s Vienna may well be in Southern California. The action unfolds in a single neon lit room with long rows of windows at the back reminiscent of some institutional meeting room. The flexibility of so stark a space is quickly revealed, however, when the audience realizes that the viewable space behind the set often serves as another arena for related action to play out simultaneously as a myriad of video projections set other scenes on the scrims behind it. Shakespeare's many interiors, from courtrooms to bawdy houses, transition between one another like liquid. But the strong visual sense is only part of it. The show opens with three female mariachi singers who originally enter disguised as cleaning women, but soon reveal themselves as the wandering players that will return on occasion to provide an exclamation point on the proceedings. Claudio, played by Frankie J. Alvarez, and Isabela, a wonderful Stephanie Beatriz, have come from a barrio populated with any number of Shakespeare’s sympathetic bawds including a drag queen Mistress Overdone, the hysterical Cristofer Jean. It’s a diverse urban world that any modern American would immediately recognize.

René Millán and Stephanie Beatriz Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2011.

Yet, despite all these visually sharp modern trappings, Rauch still delivers a rather traditional version of Shakespeare’s play. Some times surprisingly so. Measure for Measure is a comedy, and there is more than a little ribald sexual humor in it. And while anyone can insert a few pelvic thrusts here and there among the actors, Rauch really delivers the goods giving the actors license to produce the kind of amused gasps and groans that were undoubtedly the author’s goal centuries ago. I won’t say more and spoil the fun, but I will say that there is far more punch to this staging than what most modern audiences have come to typically expect from a Shakespeare play. (Or at least come to expect in places outside of Ashland in recent years.) Admittedly though, as faithful as this approach may be, it doesn’t resolve all of the play’s inherent problems. The Duke’s motivations in turning over his authority to Angelo and Escalus still seem overly contrived as does his subsequent plotting over the fortunes of Isabel and Claudio. The testing of Isabela’s virtue by all of the men in the play still comes off as strangely cruel at times. But the play remains relevant especially in a culture where the politics surrounding morality and virtue continue to drive much debate.

I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other great performances in this ensemble cast including Anthony Heald as the Duke and René Millán as Angelo. The comic timing of Kenajuan Bently as Lucio and Ramiz Monsef as the auspiciously named Pompey often stole the show. Productions here in Ashland benefit from the strength of their ensemble casts and this Measure for Measure is a joy to watch from beginning to end. It was equally exciting to see the play as I did on Saturday afternoon with an audience heavily populated with adolescents who seemed just as excited and taken with the show as I was. If Rauch's goal is to get more young people excited about Shakespeare, the anecdotal evidence from this performance suggests that his strategy is working. The show will run the length of the entire season this year until November 6 and should be on the must-see list for anyone visiting Southern Oregon this summer.



I added Measure for Measure to my OSF schedule solely on OutWestArts's recommendation, and it was absolutely worth it! It was the last thing I saw before driving out of town, and I only discovered too late that the wonderful "soundtrack" by Las Colibri was available to purchase at the Gift Shop! Maybe OutWestArts will pick me up a cd when he returns to Ashland at the end of the month?
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