The barebones approach to the Bard offers several advantages both economic and artistic. The Actors' Shakespeare Project, started this year by ART veteran, Benjamin Evett has recruited a number of experienced Shakespearean hands to present productions unencumbered by complex directorial concepts or elaborate production support. ASP relies on interaction between the actors, the audience, and the text to create a rich dramatic experience dependent chiefly on the strength of the verse. The company has also decided to seek out interesting venues around town rather than settle on one location. ASP began in the fall with "Richard III" at the historic Old South Meeting House on the Freedom Trail, casting a popular comic actor and playwright in the title role and gender switching others. The result were interesting if uneven, with the political component of the argument, just prior to the election, in the fore.
This time out, again in modern dress, the play is "Measure For Measure", Wm. Shakespeare's 1605 dark comedy, which employs tropes from revenge tragedy and presents psychologically problematic characters. The venue this time is a converted Lutheran Church in Boston's South End, the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center serving the adjacent Villa Victoria housing project, the center of the Puerto Rican community. The show is staged in the center of the hall on a small stage essentially in the round with the added interest of a marvelous curved staircase which ascends to the balcony which director Robert Walsh also uses on occasion. Since the action is not the end of the War of Roses, but rather very personal relations in a mythic Vienna, this particular space works a bit more fluidly than very puritanical Old South. There's more chance for Mark O'Maley to use lighting to define the show as the JHCC has installed positions and equipment.
The casting is less innovative. Peripatetic Ken Cheeseman, who played Hasting's in the fall, doesn't always rise to the public side of Angelo, the Duke's deputy whose puritanical policies drive the action. Cheeseman almost seems to be playing his own observation of this supposed paragon rather than the character. As Duke Vincentio, Shakespeare & Co. veteran Allyn Burrows, who's done Angelo previously, slips into the manipulator behind the scenes quite effectively. Head of Acting at Emerson College, Paula Langton, with Shakespeare & Co. experience as well, rises to the challenge of Isabella, the novice nun trying to save her libertine brother from Angelo's sentence of death. These three principals keep the action going quite effectively, though Walsh's direction locks them into position too often by failing to take advantage of in-the-round staging. Each achieves compelling moments from a rather obscure text.
Supporting the plot, award-winner John Kuntz plays Lucio the scandalmonger this time out, a part closer to his performing instincts than Richard in the fall. He scurries off to get Isabella involved, makes up stories about the Duke heard by the latter disguised as a monk, and interrupts whenever, all with impeccable timing. Award winning actress Paula Plum, doubles as Mistress Overdone, the Madam and is gender-switched as the Provost. Plum is appropriately over the top in the comic role and makes the Provost more interesting than usual, quite a change from her Chanel-inspired Margaret last fall. Simmon's English professor and longtime Harvard actor David Gullette is a sturdy and effective Escalus, the court counsellor, and appropriately raffish as Abhorson, the executioner. Recent Brandeis MFA, Jennifer LaFleur , seen last spring in "Scapin" at the New Rep starring Kuntz, is first seen as Claudio's very pregnant gumchewing girlfriend, Juliet--one of the Bard's little jokes?--and shines as Mariana, Angelo's discarded fiance who aids in the prig's downfall. Her pop ballad lament which opens the second half at Act IV, 1 needs to happen down in the hall or at least on the stairs, however. Doug Lockwood, education director for the New Rep, who shared the part of Henry with Evett, doubles as Claudio and the comic constable, Elbow. He's better as the latter, which has more substance in the script. The other major comic role, Pompey, Overdone's barkeep and pimp, is taken by Michael F. Walker, the company's marketing director, who doesn't rise to the comic challenge too well. Attitude only works for a short while as an acting technique.
Perhaps the biggest improvement needed is a better sense of costume design and detail. Lanky Cheeseman might have been helped by a lighter suit with a vest so that he could take off his jacket when seducing Langton. Her vocation should at least be indicated by a simple headscarf. The various friars, especially Burrows, would have been distinguished from the rest of the cast if brown robes had been found for them. Burrows' could also use a less bulky wig with an attached beretta. Plum's Provost would be distinguished from the officers if dressed in a black suit with a skirt, perhaps even carrying a briefcase rather than a clipboard. And something better than a cardigan needs to be found for LaFleur as Mariana, though her tight black ensemble when playing pregnant Juliet was appropriately jarring. When everything's being kept to a minimum, minor details can make a big difference. Cameron Willard's
live guitar and bass background music needs somehow to be more connected to the show, for example.
In May, the Project will present "Julius Caesar" at the renovated Durrell Hall in Cambridge's YMCA, just across from City Hall. Evett will direct, Walsh will play Brutus, and IRNE winner Dorian Christian Baucum has been cast as Marc Antony. This venue, a period Chataqua hall with a horseshoe balcony, should make an interesting Forum, not to mention a battlefield. It is likely to be a strong finish to an interesting inaugural season.
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