Christopher Marino’s latest project is a fascinating adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” as a protest play focusing on the effects of House Bill 2 (HB2) in North Carolina. Passed into law in March, HB2 has gained nationwide attention as the “bathroom bill” due to wording that specifically cites the legally binding requirement for people to use public restrooms identified by their birth gender. Like stage magicians, politicians rely on misdirection and that part has succeeded in upstaging other aspects of the bill which address labor rights and the autonomy of municipalities within the state.
Staged in Sputnik, the fourth floor night club on Front Street above KGB, the show is intended to be experiential rather than passive. Marino, who directs and also plays Aneglo, seems to have penchant for unconventional production spaces. For the purposes here, he found a perfect venue in the club: Tucked upstairs, it creates an ambiance that would be difficult to effect in a proscenium space. Theatre-goers enter through KGB (on Princess St.) and take the elevator up to a dance party in full swing. Eddie Waters, playing Froth, a party boy in tight shorts and high heels, is on the center platform as the music cranks up and the lights fade. Josie Sanchez as Mistress Overdone, the manager and mistress of ceremonies, comes center and delivers a prologue/invocation for the evening. Rather quickly it becomes apparent that the audience is in Raleigh, North Carolina, not in Vienna in the early 1600s (though Marino’s adaptation does rather make the point that we might as well be for all that is occurring here, now.)
I must start by saying, though it is not one of the Bard’s better-known works and is considered one of his problem plays, I happen to love “Measure for Measure.” Isabella is one of the more intriguing female parts Shakespeare wrote. Marino has made some interesting and significant changes to the script—not just by setting it in modern-day North Carolina. There are also modern language passages (though still in rhythm with the text and show) and insertions from of all sources Thomas Cromwell (arguably Henry VIII’s Angelo). And the KJV Bible (a project that our Bard was not asked to work on though his contemporary poets did participate). At the risk of sounding pretentious (though this is not intended that way), the changes, additions and subtractions probably would have pleased the playwright who gives us all indication of a collaborative career, an interest in the human experience, and a body of work that not only addressed the issues of the time but did so while skirting a strict censor. If anything, the work shines a fascinating light on the repercussions of HB2 and the human experience as a frail, fallible, scared, hypocritical creature. In short, it is a creative and fascinating evening that utilizes art as a bridge in unexpected ways.
Current NC Governor Vincent (Fletcher McTaggart) has easily won re-election and now disappears from Raleigh and possibly even the state, leaving LT. Governor Angelo in charge in his absence. McTaggart is far handsomer than Pat McCrory (and really lacks the farcical dunce-like smirk the poor man is cursed with), but between a few careful mannerisms, and his vocal modulation, he manages to create the impression of McCrory. In the beginning, audiences get the almost disinterested head of state, eager to not be bothered with his cares. By the end, he re-emerges with a rendition of the good ol’ boy backslapper, who can demean and talk down a woman with a glance, two sentences and a shared chuckle with his cronies. It is infuriating in its accuracy.
But for all of the back-slapping good nature with the boys of the governor, Marino’s Angelo is terrifying. Marino’s work as a director is not new to Wilmington audiences, but seeing him onstage for the first time really deepens and changes the perception of his craft. Once Angelo is in power, he invokes an unjust law and Claudio (Brendan Carter) is arrested at a local club while engaged with his young lover, Juliano (Grant Henrick). Claudio is condemned to death. Caludio’s sister, Isabella (Esther Williamson), seeks out Angelo to plead for Claudio’s release. All of the really eerie, stonewalled, patriarchal elements of Marino’s performance lead into an exchange with Isabella that made my blood run cold. He oh-so specifically tells her if she wants her brother released, she must yield up her virginity to him. When she refuses and threatens to tell the press, he responds that no one would believe her. And there we have another moment that has echoed across our national news for the last year.
I could see any number of young women in tears as they were calmly informed if they told anyone about such horrendous indiscretions, nobody would believe them. Think of our dear Dr. Huxtable—America’s favorite family man and obstetrician. Every week he is on millions of TV sets with all his wholesome goodness, so who was she, but an accuser? But a lying little nobody?
Isabllea is one of my favorite female parts in the cannon of the Bard’s work. If not played well, the whole show can quickly take on the feel of a choose-your-own adventure book with Isabella being sent hither and yon. Williamson is the best Isabella I have seen to date. To begin with, she physically plays the character as a novitiate nun—not a woman who uses her body as a sexual instrument to manipulate men. That would be confusing for Isabella, and indeed it is when not only Angelo suggests it but a plan is hatched to trap Angelo at his own game. She is in over her head and deeply befuddled, and it shows in every muscle of her body. It is quite the contrast to her sweet and confused brother, Claudio, and his lover, both of whom yearn and reach for each other physically.
Part of why “Measure for Measure” is considered a problem play is it has the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s comedies, but deals with such heavy themes, it feels like a tragedy, even though it ends with a wedding. To that end, the comedic characters are over-the-top wonderful and visually evocative. Pompey Bum (Ashley Strand) is impossible to ignore. The startling physical aspects of his performance and costume aside, he really infuses Pompey with a grittiness and backbone that a tapster (or in this case, pimp) would need for survival and success in his chosen profession. When he elects to help the executioner (Andrew Tyler Crittenden), it is an obvious choice of selling out to benefit one’s self. It rings true with what we have seen of this opportunist thus far.
Crittenden’s executioner not only holds his own with Strand, but through his odd blend of Peter Lorre and Anthony Perkins he manages to upstage him a little bit. It is completely surprising, engaging and laugh-inducing.
The Elbow family of Wilson Meredith and Amanda Goodyear (and later their vapor-exhaling offspring) bring an element of Jerry Springer to an otherwise solemn courtroom scene that frustrates and entices in turn. Just like daytime TV, it is so awful and titillating, audiences will not be able to turn away.
Marino’s vision and concept is striking, creative, fascinating, and clearly of the necessary moment. That he brings it to life in such a vibrant manner is a credit not only to him but to the entire talented cast he assembled. “Measure for Measure” is an experience that blurs the lines between art and life to ask deeper questions we avoid. Let’s try to keep them in focus at election time. But in the meantime, go see the show.