Laws based on Christian precepts, a leader with a penchant for enforcing the letter of the law, and citizens enraged at having their morality legislated: contemporary America or Shakespeare's 17-century Vienna? The correlation is easy to recognize, and it's made even more apparent in Hipgnosis Theater Company's modern-dress production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Though the show suffers somewhat from stylistic unevenness, most of its elements work well enough for the production to succeed. A clash of acting styles involving two characters pivotal to expressing the play's theme is the main culprit for the stylistic jaggedness. Angelo (David Look), whom Duke Vincentio (Nick Brooks) deputizes to enforce the Viennese law against fornication before going undercover as a friar to get to know his subjects, is the very embodiment of the governmental hypocrisy that gives the play its immediacy today.
Look's subtle, naturalistic portrayal of the character, however, gets overshadowed by the more declamatory delivery and sharply rendered characterizations rendered by some of his cast mates. Failing to depict this villain in sharper relief is a missed opportunity to drive home the play's theme with greater punch. Ditto for Brooks's portrayal of the Duke, who, as the play's protagonist and Angelo's superior, is uniquely placed to balance his deputy's nefariousness.
It is hard to tell whether this discrepancy is a result of the performers' independent decisions or directorial design. But either way, a more pronounced delivery on the part of these two performers would have allowed the production to strike a more resounding chord.
Separately, however, most aspects of the show work admirably and provide considerable entertainment for a modest ticket price. Justin Steeve radiates a leading man's charisma as Claudio, the young man condemned by Angelo to death for premarital sex with his betrothed, Julietta—portrayed by the ethereally sweet Adelia Saunders. Claudio's chaste sister, Isabella, who is faced with the prospect of yielding her virginity to the lust-tempted Angelo in exchange for her brother's life, is played with grace, passion, and command by Erika Bailey.
Doubly cast John Kevin Jones is equally impressive as the fastidious lord Escalus and the absurdly abhorrent executioner Abhorson, while Julian A. Rozzell Jr. delights as the shady, ethically challenged Lucio. Elizabeth Mirarchi, as the nun Francisca, demonstrates a comedic flair in her facial expressions and body language despite limited speaking lines, and Wayne Scott's booming voice and domineering physicality make the prisoner Barnardine's short stage time memorable. The purity and emotiveness of Sarah Sokolovic's singing voice made me wish that the Bard had further indulged his musical fancy with the character of Mariana, the woman whom Angelo had previously planned to marry and who assists Isabella and the friar (the Duke in disguise) in their plan to have Angelo answer for his hypocrisy.
Director John Castro's decision to stage the play in the round provides the audience with an intimate look at the characters' ethical dilemmas, aided by Steeve's additional contribution as lighting designer and the combined efforts of Steeve, Rozzell, and Lara Evangelista as scenic designers. The audience surrounds the playing space, while a rectangle of regularly spaced flats painted to appear shabby surrounds the entire set and provides ample entries and exits that are well suited to the logistical complexities of producing Shakespeare.
The drab gray and light-green walls, dotted with the dull metallic luster of cheap industrial wall lamps and complemented by the paint-splattered wood floor, effectively evoke the seedier areas of town where the sex trade—one of Angelo's targets—occurs. Though the lighting equipment is limited, Steeve makes apt use of what is available to define different locations and enhance mood. In addition, composer and bassist Luke Mitchell provides, by himself, a gut-grabbing live soundtrack.
Costume designer Krista Thomas playfully translates Shakespeare into the present day with ensembles that speak to the characters' societal roles and defining traits. Angelo is appropriately staid in stark black, Escalus stuffy in seersucker and a bow tie, and brothel proprietor Mistress Overdone (the saucy Kate Dulcich) tawdry in a hot pink bustier.
A unifying acting style might have tied this production's disparate yet successful elements more tightly together, but as it stands, Hipgnosis's take on Shakespeare's examination of the crossroads of law and morality provides entertainment and insight, each in good measure.