Shakespeare’s Vervy Vienna

IsabellaWhy is Sister Isabella angry? Because she’s made it clear that she will NOT sleep with repulsive hypocrite Angelo just to save her brother’s life. But her brother Claudio pleads with her to do it and let him live. If she sins by having unmarried sex to save her own brother, he argues, then sinning becomes a virtue. Doesn’t it?

Shakespeare’s late comedies have been called dark and problematic. Moral ambiguity reigns. While goodness ultimately prevails, and things work out in the end–on a more or less festive note–cruelties occur along the way.

The current Frog and Peach production of Measure for Measure wrings the maximum sport out of the grimmest, most sardonic materials. Period jazz heightens the atmosphere of entertaining debauchery. The company’s talents and gusto make light of the evils.

Amy Frances Quint energetically takes over the role of Isabella, playing the not-yet-professed nun to the hilt. She first appears in white nun’s habit, but for the rest of the action she’s costumed in boots, black velvet doublet and hose. In this transformation, she brings to life a familiar Shakespearean role, the enchanting, salty-tongued, boyish girl who harangues the system, prancing and charging around the stage like a high-spirited pony.

Frog and Peach, known for its innovative costuming on a tight budget, creates for the cast the look of a decadent, dandified, vaguely Austro-Hungarian era, garbing the actors in blazers and uniforms decked in shiny black vinyl epaulettes, ruffs and cuffs. The spare staging sends its own message in economical style: a gray stone wall paved with Reichsmarks.

As the play opens on this funky Vienna, morality has hit rock bottom, Uniformed officers can get lap-dances from Mistress Overdone’s girls. Can-can cuties in tatty finery posture in attitudes that suggest something between a music hall and a strip club.

Such  promiscuous behavior can’t be tolerated. As an antidote, the city’s  most biting laws are revived, notably an old law sentencing fornicators to execution by beheading.

Angelo is the villain of Vienna. He pounces on poor Claudio, who hasn’t yet been able to wed his pregnant sobbing girlfriend. He orders Claudio’s beheading for tomorrow. Nine a.m. This suddenness drives  the action with the urgency of a ticking clock. But Angelo–played by Eric Doss (ass-eared Bottom in the company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream last season)–enacts a chilling deputy in black with a shaved Mussolini-like skull. Bent on killing Claudio, he’s equally determined to seduce the nun Isabella. Shakespeare describes this hypocrite as a false coin. The play’s clowns comment that he’s snow-broth and his urine is congealed ice.

The stage manager of this sadistic plot is the skulking Duke of dark corners played by the versatile Erick Gonzalez. Masquerading as a friar, with wagging eyebrows and malicious grins, he  invents games to guarantee his subjects’ suffering before he surprises them all with the weddings they deserve. Shakespeare doesn’t give Isabella a chance to reply to the Duke’s public proposal of marriage, so Frog and Peach writes her a made-up speech to please the audience.

Buy tickets at FrogAndPeach.org

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