In a refreshing new staging of “Measure for Measure” by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, director Jack Wetherall has taken a daring leap in time, moving the action of one of the Bard’s darkest and most bitter comedies from 16th century Vienna to the Old West following the American Civil War. The concept works well, allowing the fine cast to reveal the plot’s complexities and draw the audience into a broad spectrum of incisive character studies.
More deeply disturbing than truly funny, the story finds the exiting Duke of Venice (acted with vigor and dash by David Manis) on sabbatical, entrusting his reign of sin city to a lecherous deputy while remaining disguised as a snooping friar to observe the manipulative deceit of his appointed charge. As the deputy, Angelo Michael Milligan makes a cold, mean-spirited acting governor, who offers to spare the life of a young gentleman arrested for fornication if he can bed down the prisoner’s sister, Isabella, a winsomely desirable young novitiate.
January LaVoy gives a stunning performance as the virginal Isabella. Luminous and sensual, even in her white habit, she conveys her purity and innocence while setting off an undeniable sexual spark. At the center of the conflict, Isabella is like a precursor to Maria von Trapp, appearing a rather reluctant convent entrant in the beginning while the text implies at the end that she may marry the Duke.
At the start of the action, the dusty terrain of the Old West well serves the crooks, trollops and woeful lovers who inhabit the saloons and bordellos, with a flavorful barn dance used to set the mood.
The bawdy Mistress Overdone, acted with haughty grandeur by Elizabeth Shepherd, deplores the closing of her popular brothel. Elbow, an incompetent and blundering constable, is played by Jeffrey Guyton with all the gruff, grizzled crankiness that once characterized veteran cowpoke sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes.
The rakish and slandering opportunist Lucio, in bowler and checkered pants, is a master of meddling and oily candor as played by Wayne Meledandri. Isabella’s once doomed brother Claudio is given full-blooded life by Stephen Tyrone Williams. Roderick Lapid brings a fervent, broad thrust to Pompey, the bawdy servant.
Wetherall’s radical restaging is highly intelligent, vigorous, clean and direct. Though it still may be difficult to find the measured laughter of Shakespeare’s vision, Wetherall has made it all agreeably palatable and compelling. The costumes, as designed by Clint Ramos, from riding chaps and dusty boots, gun belts and holsters, to ten-gallon hats certainly capture the flavor of John Ford’s classic oaters. The bare-board set, however, fails to complete the rustic panorama.