Walking into La Val’s Subterranean Theatre last week for Melissa Hillman’s production of Measure for Measure reminded me more of a cool after-hours party than a typical evening with Shakespeare. Lights dimmed, music ranging from that song with the cowbell to pre-pop Duran Duran; an eclectic cast clenches bottles of Smirnoff and Grey Goose, and are clenched by garters and tightly laced corsets. There is even pizza to go around, which is something we all want at an after-hours party, no? I must admit, I found it a bit odd that I was watching Measure for Measure performed in the basement of a pizza joint (La Val’s in Berkeley), but there is a certain cool factor here that can’t be denied. Top that with a hot performance and some spot on acting, and I’d say there’s something to talk about.
Interestingly, and practically speaking for the sake of space, this production encompasses a small stage for the lot of the action, and a “backstage” in plain, yet darkened, view of the audience though a chain-link fence. The latter serves as this play’s prison and brothel, as a set for sound and lights, and as a place for a couple of random blokes to kick back on a couch (who are these guys?) I would normally find the “backstage” antics distracting at best, but this was not the case. Perhaps because the offstage antics are subtle: perhaps because the onstage acting is not. Regardless, both have their place, and both make an impact.
And let’s talk about impact. Those that made it: Marissa Keltie as Isabella; Cole Alexander Smith as Angelo, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, Jeremy Forbing as Lucio. Keltie exudes both strength and purity; innocence and rebellion. Her fresh face gleams out of her white habit as she grasps her voluptuous red rosary in hand – an appropriate contrast to the colorless beads that hang like an unused appendage from Friar Peter’s (Seth Thygesen) front belt loop. Keltie is far from “too cold,” and her passion carries her through every action and interaction on the stage. She is the obvious victim of all the men in this play, yet her spirit evokes admiration rather than pity. Perhaps the most monstrous of injustices is her eventual pairing with Duke Vincentio (Ted Barker). Hillman follows suit with the 1998 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of M4M by making the Duke blind. Granted, it serves Lucio well, permitting Forbing to play upon the Duke’s lack of sight by making a comedic and obscene spectacle of himself, but Barker’s bad wig, his hunched over, tall frame leaning into a poorly used blind man’s cane, and his dangerously dark glasses are just plain distracting. I say dangerous because an actor’s eyes are so important. They sometimes reveal what nothing else can. The only time I felt connected with Barker was when he rarely lowered his glasses, or removed them altogether. Granted this man is supposed to be in disguise, but a hood and cape would prove much less distracting. Barker’s lack of insight is only magnified by his lack of vocal projection. Hopefully, this lack was merely a first preview curse.
Not cursed is Forbing. He is in all ways hilarious as Lucio. His vulgar, knifing ways are well balanced by his sense of caring for those who are wronged in the play. This makes him likable for both his humor and his humours. Forbing’s comedy is at times biting, at times physical, and his timing smart and impeccable.
Cole Alexander Smith plays a rigid, militariesque Angelo with dueling personalities of anxiety and control that are kept in check by popping pills and running his hand slowly down in front of his face. Well-done as long as it’s not overdone. His soliloquies are on the mark, and his internal battles create a delightfully unsettling mood.
Hillman gave me fair warning that she “created a very different and bold ending for the play.” Warning lights beamed in my mind, but in this case, they were unnecessary. Get ready for a shocking final few seconds. Think the ending of The Departed, where everything can turn on a dime, and leave you stunned, silent, and frozen before your next breath. This “creation” turns one controversial comedy into a dark tragedy, and I can tell you right now, it isn’t what you think.