AUX DOG THEATRE NOB HILL: Review: “Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare

Photos by Russell Maynor.

THROUGH MAY 6, Directed by Victoria J. Liberatori. Tickets: auxdogtheatre.org, 505.596.0607

Merriment and motivation are the keys to enjoying “Measure for Measure,” another notch in the Shakespeare 505 series at Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill. Cleverly set in the Duke City and rife with hyperlocal references, “M4M” is one of those Shakespearean plays that only benefits from present-day references. Even “purists” laugh when the pimps, whores, clerics and political animals in the play are paraded before us in modern dress and decorum (or its lack).

The Duke (Blake Magnusson) despairs of cleaning up the crime and debauchery rampant in his city, and so abruptly leaves for a holiday, hoping that his very strict, puritanical crony Angelo (Nicholas Ganjei) will straighten everything out in his “absence.” Instead, the Duke stays behind disguised as a Friar, where he can come and go while spying on Angelo’s methods.

Prisoner Claudio (Jack French) has been sentenced to die for impregnating his girlfriend Julietta (Marissa Johnson), by a law that has not been enforced for “19 zodiacs.” Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Caitlin Kelly), a novice about to take her vows, pleads eloquently with Angelo to spare her brother. Angelo is a stickler for the law but is stirred by Isabella’s beauty. He tells her that he will commute her brother’s sentence—if Isabella will give up her virginity to him, Angelo. 

I want to point out that in “M4M,” everybody’s in a comedy except Isabella. The character is trapped in tragedy throughout the play and so must maintain her agonized stance (virginity being a bigger deal than a brother’s life) and otherworldly spirituality. Kelly’s concentration never wavers and her young face glows with grace and certitude. As a puritan herself, she’d be a good match for Angelo if their ends weren’t completely at odds. Isabella and Angelo are the only “straight” characters in the play, and they’re both being played throughout.

Too bad, because every other character is having a very good time indeed.   The Provost (Michelle Varela) is hauling miscreants off the streets left and right with the help of sleepy constable Elbow (Joshua Ball). Both actors ply lots of comic bits to entertain us. So does Lucio (J. Ryan Montenery), a handsome gigolo who serves as liaison between Claudio and Isabella, and the facilitator of many shenanigans. Scott Bing as Escalus proves a believably steady hand until the Duke returns. Mistress Overdone (Lisa Fenstermacher), Pompey the pimp (Bradd Howard), Father Pedro (Spencer Scott), and the hapless Bernardine (Nick Locicero) give us plenty of funny lines and comic relief. Ericka Zepeda as Mariana is lovely and sweetly still in love with Angelo, despite all of our misgivings.

Magnusson’s Duke is taller than any of our recent tall mayors and that makes his “disguise” as The Friar even more hilarious. Add to that the physical tics and tremors in which the actor indulges and just watching him cross the stage becomes an adventure in mirth. When he comes back home as The Duke and sets the denouement in motion, his apt gravity reveals the true stakes of his game.

Director Victoria J. Liberatori, founder of the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, knows how to set Shakespeare in present times and modern costume, as The Bard himself did, and her audience loves it. Set Designer Susan Roden and Lighting Designer Cody Kelien are on the same wavelength with a graffiti-tagged police station-jail-courthouse-brothel-nunnery overlooked by a light-up cross in devil red. Feels like home to me.

Through May 6, Fri.-Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets: auxdogtheatre.org, 505.596.0607

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