The Bard’s Measure for Measure acts as the launch pad for A Noise Within’s 19th season, and what better way to get things started than for this immaculate company to go and seek out a problem. Never a one-note troupe, ANW opts to transport the play into the modern era, because let’s be real—a corrupt government? Check. Sexual deviants? Check. Religious hypocrisy? Check, check. Yes, it works. Co-directors Geoff Elliot and Julia Rodriguez-Elliot show us just how well.
They say things are rotten in Denmark, but Vienna isn’t too far behind those great Danes. The stage, for starters, is a corporeal manifestation of the decay taking place within city walls. It bears a striking resemblance to another famous metropolis home to a putrid population of its own—Gotham City. The designers must receive mention here, because they manage to stage the intrigue before the actor need make an entrance. Stephen Gifford (scenic), Elizabeth Harper (lighting) and Douglas Newell (sound and music) create a poisonous brew of sharp edges, universally recognized red lights, and bordello beats. It's dark and ambiguous, but what “wrong part of town” isn’t?
The action begins when the flighty Duke (Robertson Dean) flees his post and turns Vienna’s affairs over to the pious Angelo (Geoff Elliott). This exchange of power does not bode well for the happy heathens of the city who are to be prosecuted for their fornicating ways per the reinstatement of the law by the pitiless arch-Angel-o. This subsequently puts Mistress Overdone out of business, played by the great Jill Hill and who is practically unrecognizable in a costume that looks like she’s just booked herself a ticket to Laughlin instead of a one-way to prison. The first unlucky bastard to be sentenced to death is Claudio (William Patrick Riley), brother to nun-in-waiting Isabella (Karron Graves) and future baby-daddy to a pregnant, unmarried Juliet (Courtney Kocak).
Isabella is summoned to plead for mercy on Claudio’s behalf and with her passionate candor and goodness secretly melts Angelo’s wintry predisposition. Graves and Elliott simply amaze. The chemistry is potent and, at times, very disturbing. His leers become more and more obvious as Angelo’s snaky layer of hard skin starts to crack and slither about. Realization sets in that no good could come of it and immediately you feel protective over the innocent Isabella, who is clueless to having been the mortal trigger—releasing an immoral beast of a man.
Pompey is the local pimp with the heart of gold, played by ANW favorite Mark Bramhall, and it simply must be said that Bramhall’s chameleonic performances with A Noise Within are truly the unforgettable ones. He wears the characters he plays with total skill and ease. Seeing this veteran actor saunter across the stage in a tan leather jacket, a swirly polyester blend shirt and sporting some bling? What a hoot.
The Duke, in his friar’s effects, slinks in and out throughout the play never having left Vienna after all, but instead conducting a controlled experiment over the decaying populace as a confessional ear in the prison in addition to being a meek compass for Isabella while on the campaign to save her brother. It becomes more apparent as the play goes on that the Duke has bitten off more than he can chew, so he resorts to the same unorthodox and unethical methods that plague Vienna to save its soul.
The classic bed trick ensues with Angelo’s scorned ex-fiancé Marianna (Jill Hill, respectively), a beheaded head switch with the help of the honorable Provost (Steve Weingartner) and a few lines of utter hilarity highlighted by the inebriated inmate Barnadine (Thomas Moses).
Act Five is, of course, the seemingly seamless wrap up. Once the Duke reveals himself, and makes a big stink of it in front of God and country, he orders Angelo to marry the dowry-less Mariana. This being just one of the formulaic and tidy couplings to coincide with the reunion of the freed Claudio and the soon-to-be made honest woman, Juliet.
The dubious end tops off with an overzealous Duke pushing his luck with the still chaste Isabella, who for the last five acts has not had a single moment’s rest. The lights go out on her gasp, and the audience is left with a question mark instead of a concluding period.
You almost wish the dopey Duke would leave the poor girl alone after the ordeal she’s been through to save her brother. Notwithstanding, the simple fact that he’s the same guy who’s been lying to her face, posing as a man of the cloth and lo, fighting hard to preserve the girl’s virtue just so he could have it all to himself come play’s end. Who does this dude think he is? Oh right, the dude’s the Duke...the one who’s been having all the fun.
No word yet from Isabella. Been checking her Facebook all day and night for clues. Relationship status continues to read “It’s Complicated.”