Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is deemed a problem play because it mixes dark drama and light comedy in its examination of sexual mores and corruption of power. But that doesn’t daunt Bare Theatre, which gives the play a vibrant, intelligent staging in downtown Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theatre.
The central plot concerns novice nun Isabella, whose brother Claudio is sentenced to death for impregnating his girlfriend before marriage. This harsh sentence is upheld by Angelo, deputized for the absent Duke. Isabella pleads with Angelo to spare her brother but Angelo’s lust results in a terrible ultimatum: Isabella’s virginity for Claudio’s release. A friar (actually the incognito Duke) aids her dilemma, suggesting the substitution of Angelo’s jilted bride Mariana in disguise to confirm Angelo’s corrupt ways.
The play is gripping in the dramatic sections, largely due to Rebecca Blum’s multilayered Isabella, moving in her desperate pleas and, later, her intense grief in believing Claudio dead. Matching her is real-life husband Seth Blum, whose Angelo is outwardly steely and menacing but revealingly vulnerable to doubt and guilt.
Further dramatic strengths come from Victor Rivera’s fervent Claudio and Michelle Johnson’s aggrieved Mariana. Stephen Wall plays the opportunistic fop Lucio with appropriate sliminess, and Matt Schedler gives the Duke a slyly humorous interpretation, although his vocal projection is often weak.
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Director Beverly Schieman sets the play in 1920s Paris instead of 17th century Vienna, but despite period costumes and projected photos of Parisian locales, the premise doesn’t add any real substance.
Several men’s roles are changed to women’s, although the idea doesn’t work well within the established social structure. But it’s a pleasure to witness the strong, clearly spoken portrayals by Lucinda Gainey (the prison provost), Tara Nicole Williams (the pimp, Pompey) and Joanna Herath (the Duke’s snippy assistant, Escala).
Schieman’s pacing is tight, and her actors prove they know what their lines mean with thoughtful readings. However, several actors, particularly Rebecca Blum, speak too many important lines in realistic whispers, frustratingly inaudible.
Still, the production’s rough edges and minimal technical contributions don’t detract from a production that ultimately satisfies in its sincerity and commitment.
What: Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” presented by Bare Theatre
Where: Varsity Theatre, 123 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 26-28 and Apr. 2-4
Tickets: $18 (students/seniors/military $15)
Info: 919-322-8819 or baretheatre.org