A lot of people think Measure for Measure is a slow play, but this does not have to be the case. Unfortunately, it would not be at all slanderous to state that Peter Glazer’s production staged at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley is, well, slow. This production really does drag its measured feet miserably, and there’s no mystery as to why. Between almost every act and scene, the act, scene, and location are projected on the upstage wall while a cheesy jazz riff plays and the house lights dim. The breaks create so much dead time in the production that it’s surprising we got through it all. And every time the lights went out, a dozen or so cell phones lit up to check the time or to send an SMS, and just as many voices whispered to each other over the sound of shuffling bodies.
And there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the scene breaks unless it’s some kind of half-baked attempt at a Brechtian device. The set is almost bare, with just a few benches and chairs, so there’s no need to reorganize all the furniture while the audience “can’t see.” There are no major costume changes, so no one needs any extra time.
As for the costumes, they are wonderful, and help tell each character’s story. Vicentio (Will Austin) dons purple accents when he is the duke and then wears a subtle purple-lined cloak when as the ghostly father so that his royal presence translates to the audience if not immediately to the other characters. Escalus (Ken Jensen) dresses conservatively and looks like a wholesome gentleman who any duke would maintain as a trusted adviser. Angelo (Carl Holvick-Thomas) wears a black jacket that allows bright flashes of red to shine through tiny slits as he moves, giving him the air of a man who can just barely hide his sin. Lucio (Daniel Desmarais) is in, perhaps, the most modern dress of all, wearing dark Hollywood glasses and looking like a rich playboy, what else? Mistress Overdone (Holli Dillon) is the archetypal madam—a Victorian prostitute—and is certainly a temptress. Simpleton constable Elbow (Michael J. Crandall) is uniformed in a ridiculous and officious manner without being too much of either. Pompey (Drew Ledbetter) brings a bit of flair to the stage, looking hilarious and somehow erotic with his blue and blurry makeup, hair in sticky locks, wearing a mottled collage of every type of clown you’ve ever seen, which is great because it contributes to the timelessness of the story.
Reya Seghal as Isabella comes across as a young woman who wants to be a nun but has not yet been able to give up the vanity and power of her youth, while her brother, Claudio, (Marc Juberg) is reminiscent of a yeoman farmer, an every day, upstanding man who instantly wins the audience’s pity over his not so valiant plight. Frankly, costume design is the best thing about this production, and designer Caitlin Kagawa is due the standing ovation this stage did not receive. All in all, Caitlin Kagawa seems to have the firmest grasp on each character in the production, and she’s designed the best costumes I’ve seen this season.
All the actors are good enough, but they are stifled by the constant interruptions and other directorial faux pas. Every time someone talks, for example, other actors are constantly moving and whispering, undermining the ostensible center of attention. There is a flash of brilliance, however, during the interchange between Abhorson the executioner (Nicholas S. LoCicero) who reluctantly takes the anxious Pompey (Drew LedBetter) as his ersatz apprentice. The scene is delivered as perfectly as any Abbot and Costello routine. Abhorson looks off into the distance with a light smile and a philosophical gaze while speaking about his profession in ways only he can understand. When Pompey doesn’t understand, LedBetter looks at the audience in such a way that concurs we don’t understand the executioner’s brevity either. Ledbetter’s laugh from the audience is far from cheap; he acts the scene with natural comic timing and spontaneity. Barnardine, played by the tall, baritone-voiced Benedict N. Tufnell, is a great addition to the routine, adding to the reluctant, the anxious, and the too-bored-to be-there. The scene is the shining star in this lackluster production and is almost by itself worth the cost of admission. But almost doesn’t quite cut it.
I want to also quickly mention a member of the crew that doesn’t often get talked about: the speech & vocal coach, in this case Deb Sussel. The language of the play is quite expertly spoken in this production and many of the actors are far from Shakespearean experts. That’s not easy, and Sussel deserves some praise in that often thankless job.
But still, despite the obvious efforts and talents of the cast and crew, this production only squirms through a play that is really meant to fly. Things happen quickly in Measure for Measure—so quickly that several characters comment on the swiftness, and none of that registers here. And that’s just frustrating. But if you’re a costume fetishist and don’t mind the lights going out on you as the production lumbers on, this Measure for Measure is for you.