This week’s edition of encore is dedicated to the victims, their family members and friends, as well as survivors of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting.
When HB2 passed in March, local professor, actor and director Chris Marino felt compelled to do something in unity and compassion for equal rights among the LGBT community. Thus he reached into the arsenal he knows best: Shakespeare. More specifically, he redirected the setting of “Measure for Measure” to fit the current-day political and social climate of North Carolina. In Marino’s version, the setting will be post election 2016 and under the guise that the current administration, including Pat McCrory, gets re-elected. The rhetorical question of the text looks to have its audience gauge the notions: How will we regress and what detrimental rights will be stripped of humans, more specifically of the LGBT community, if in fact we continue on this current path?
Marino, who co-founded Taffety Punk Theatre in Washington, D.C., and is known for their bootleg Shakespeare productions, is setting the stage in a gay nightclub rather than traditional Vienna. In this case, it takes place in Sputnik, a former nightclub in downtown Wilmington.
“Modern theaters lend themselves to a certain passivity in viewing, sometimes even closely resembling movie theaters,” he tells. “Shakespeare is anything but passive; it needs a space that’s as alive as the text is. When I go to the theater, I want to be surprised. I don’t want to see something I can see everyday and immersive experiences can sometimes offer that kind of event.”
Though they’ve been working on the show for the last month, Sunday’s mass shooting at Orlando’s gay nightclub, Pulse, which left 50 dead and 50 or more injured, is a chilling concurrence of reality—not just politically, in having politicians and leaders stripping rights from Americans, but also where we are societally, in allowing hate and violence to continue at such a rapid pace, without active measures in place to protect the safety of every American.
“It’s a rather sad coincidence that we are setting this in a club and one of the worst mass shootings in history of the United States just occurred in an LGBT club,” Marino tells. “It makes me angry and even more resolved that this production was the right thing to do. In the face of hatred and intolerance, art needs to be a loud voice of discontent.”
Marino has changed characters to fit the production. Yet, he kept the original dialog pretty much in tact, aside from additions of biblical passages to punctuate the hypocrisy so imminently apparent within Shakespeare’s play.
“The play is about legislating morality and the problems inherent when you do that,” he explains. “That’s brilliant enough but it goes one step further and shows the hypocrisy of those that would engage in this sort of thing. We have hundreds of examples going back even just five years from the Sanford case to Ted Haggard and all variations in between. The play is attacking this type of person, and I think HB2 and the architects of it are no different then the hypocrites we’ve seen before. What’s incredible is this play was written 400 years ago, so in a sense, nothing has changed.”
The premise surrounds the arrest of Claudio, who impregnates an unmarried woman. The Duke of Vienna has gone away and left his assistant duke, Angelo, to rule in his stead. Angelo begins a staunch theological cleansing, so to speak, hellbent on ensuring its people abide by puritanical actions. So he hunkers down on brothels and inappropriate sexual activity, including out-of-marriage wedlock. Yet, in the midst of his rulings, he orchestrates an unrighteous sexual assault of his own behind closed doors with Claudio’s sister Isabella—a nun who pleads for leniency for her brother but is presented with an ungodly price to pay for it.
“I’ve included text from The Buggery Act of 1533,” Marino tells of his inspiration in switching the law from out-of-wedlock sex to being gay. From the Tudor period, Henry VIII enacted the first civil sodomy law that declared “unnatural sex acts against the will of God and man.”
“It outlaws homosexuality, equates it to bestiality and says it’s a felony,” Marino notes. “You’ll be put to death and all your property will be seized. So that’s what we’re saying; that’s the world we’re basing ‘Measure for Measure’ in. So the minute Angelo comes into power, that’s the first law he enacts. It results in Claudio arrested for, in our version, being gay and caught with his partner in a bathroom.”
Claudio will be played by local actor Brendan Carter, and rather than being in love with Juliet, as Shakespeare originally wrote, Marino has changed his lover to Juliano (played by Grant Hedrick). Marino has cast peers from his Taffety Punk Theatre group, Esther Williamson as Isabella and Ashley Strand as Pompey. He has brought in professional theatre and TV actors Fletcher McTaggart (“Leap of Faith,” Broadway) as the duke/governor and Fred Grandy (most known for his role as Gopher on “Love Boat” and as a U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa’s 5th district) as Escalus. Marino will play Angelo, whose role is akin to the lieutenant governor or attorney general of NC. Lucio—the flamboyant comic relief of the play—will be played by local actress Hannah Elizabeth Smith, a girl who identifies as a boy. Mistress Overdone—head of a Vienna brothel but in Marino’s version a drag queen—will be played by Josie Sanchez Brooks, a trans-identified actor.
“Two things are en vogue with Shakespeare currently,” Marino tells. “Mark Rylance has been putting on all-male productions of ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Richard III.’ DonMar Warehouse is making a very strong commitment with their all-female ‘Henry IV.’ In our production you get a bit of both.”
Really, though, it’s not new territory for Shakespeare. In Elizabethan England only males were allowed to perform and boys often took on female characters. Marino’s Taffety Punk has been switching genders in their productions for more than a decade.
“To have Josie playing Mistress Overdone is perfect,” Marino explains. “That’s a window into probably what the actors were like [back then]. I could be wildly wrong about the scholarship here, but I don’t see a lot of the boy actors who play female roles strongly tracking into male leads. My suspicion is that they were boys that had something about them inherently feminine—and probably somebody along the profile who would now transition, which I think is fascinating to see.”
Smith playing Lucio as a female who identifies as male is a natural fit for Marino’s vision, too. “As long as you embrace the energy of the character, it works,” he concludes. In fact, Marino doesn’t find verbatim approaches to Shakespeare resonate as much. “It was never written to be literal,” he states. “It’s poetry. So it’s metaphor.”
Helping mold the tone of the show will be lighting by John McCall, costuming by Jessica Gafney, and recorded and live music, the latter of which will be performed by locals Adrian Varnam and Cole Marquis. An Antony and the Johnson’s song will be played (the performer, now known as ANOHNI was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Manta Ray,” but boycotted the awards ceremony after not being asked to perform, which she associated as a slight against her transgender identity). “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song” and David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” will be heard, too.
Marino has taken the merging of art and advocacy one step further in presenting “Measure for Measure.” Essentially, he’s doing it in protest of HB2 and has secured sponsorship from the Frank Harr Foundation and Brandi Carlile’s Looking Out Foundation. He will donate a portion of box-office proceeds to local LGBT groups, and he’s reached out to community organizations to set up in the lobby of the production in the adjoining nightclub KGB (where theatre-goers will enter before heading up to Sputnik). Cape Fear Equality, Stonewall Kickball, PFLAG, and UNCW Pride will offer literature and swag, as well as have advocates available to speak with attendees about the causes.
“The other component is UNCW Pride will host three talk backs, one each weekend on various issues: HB2, the trans experience, and they will choose the third,” Marino tells. “They will populate the panels, so the audience on those nights can stay after and talk—or people can just come up for those panels. I wanted it to be a hub for activity.”
The goal is to use art to speak out, to be effective and educated in its approach, especially by being inclusive and accepting of everyone in its community. Marino fears what our world would like if the current leaders were allowed a chance to continue guiding constituents down the present narrow-minded path.
“I think the next step would be closing down LGBT clubs and arresting people for being different,” he says. “The play itself spends more time on the ramifications of these laws. . . . The tragedy in Orlando [over the] weekend highlights the need to prevent legislation like HB2. These sorts of aggressions exist on a continuum, and the denial of basic social rights rapidly becomes a denial of basic humanity.”
The biggest difference in “Measure for Measure” will come with its ending. Marino didn’t want to victimize the protagonist, Isabella, in his updated text. With the world being bogged down with hate speech, hate crimes and hateful laws, he wanted a glow of light to emanate after the curtain closes.
“If we victimize Isabella at the end, what are we really saying?” he asks. “For the LGBT community, it had to be positive, and I wrestled with that. I could do this dark thing where Josie is led in and her makeup is off, and really make a spectacle about, did it change or did it stay the same or get worse when the governor comes back? I really found it needed to end hopefully.”