Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre production ‘measures’ up

Sarah MacMillan (Pompey) and Shannon Luster (Abhorson) plot mischief during the final performance of the FST's production of William Shakespeare "Measure for Measure." Photo by Jeremia Schrock/Sun Star.

By Jeremia Schrock

Sun Star Reporter

The final performance of the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre (FST) production of Measure for Measure, directed by Graham Watts, was a bawdy look at the timeless conflict between the individual and the state, with love and sex as the primary instigators.

Measure for Measure tells the story of Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, and his attempts to spy on his city’s affairs. Pretending to leave the city, the duke disguises himself as a monk, leaving the stern judge Angelo in charge. Angelo, a fierce defender of the law and unyielding in matters of sexual morality, cracks down on the city’s brothels, arresting Claudio and his lover in order to make an example of them. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life. The judge decides that if Isabella will sleep with him, giving him her virginity, he’ll release her brother.

Isabella, through the duke/monk’s efforts, convinces Mariana, Angelo’s formerly betrothed, to sleep with him in her stead so that Isabella can keep her virginity intact while still freeing her brother from prison. Mariana sleeps with Angelo, who decides to kill Claudio anyway. The duke then returns and, through a comic mishap, is revealed to be the monk. In the end, Claudio is released from prison, marrying his lover, and Angelo is forced to wed Mariana. It is heavily implied, although it varies between productions, that the duke later on marries Isabella. A subplot in the play has a fourth marriage: one between a brothel-goer named Lucio and a woman he impregnated. Lucio throughout the play badmouthed the duke to the monk and, in turn, the monk to the duke. The duke orders Lucio to be whipped, giving rise to the play being labeled in the FST playbill as “four weddings and a whipping.”

The play was enjoyable, if at times hard to follow. This was due in no part to the cast, but instead to the very nature of Shakespearean play-writing itself. With lines such as “I think thou dost; and, indeed, with most painful feeling of thy speech: I will, out of thine own confession, learn to begin thy health; but, whilst I live, forget to drink after thee” who could refrain from the occasional look of bewilderment? Shakespearean scholars and aficionados would refrain, of course, but there were few of those in the audience.

However, the cast excelled when it came to physical action. Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s less violent plays, with not a single sword rising from its sheath. Instead, much of the play’s physicality came from the actors themselves. Madeline Fendrick (Isabella) threw herself around the stage with such controlled abandon, and could contort her face into such dejected shapes, that one easily believed that this was the heartbroken sister of a man condemned to death. b.d. Rogers (the duke) could move mountains with his eyes and was at his most physical when portraying the monk. Rogers was capable of gripping and spinning around other actors so suddenly, and with such force, that sometimes it seemed as though Rogers had handled them almost too hard and too believably. Tom Robenolt (Angelo) a veteran of the FST, made the otherwise despicable and loathsome Angelo almost sympathetic. One particularly memorable scene had him verbalizing his angst over Isabella by yelling at a Bible he’d placed on the stage. The distance Robenolt placed between himself and the Good Book exemplified the play’s struggle between the demands of the governor (the Bible) and the desires of the governed (Angelo).

Anne Thibault (Mistress Overdone), of I Wrote This Play To Make You Love Me fame, was only a minor character but easily commanded the audience’s attention with her passion and masterful voice. It also didn’t hurt that costume designer Jessica Pribble bedecked Thibault in beautiful and regal-looking raiment. Longtime FST player Andrew Cassel also delighted the audience with his performance of Lucio; a man never too busy (despite being on crutches) to make a ribald joke or two (or three). Two weeks prior to opening, Cassel broke his ankle. “When I was able to get back on the stage I crutched through my blocking and sat with my leg up between rehearsal moments,” he said. It is obvious to see why after 10 years with the FST, they keep bringing him back for more.

One actor who deserves special attention is Shannon Luster. Luster, who portrayed Elbow and the executioner Abhorson, was an absolute scene-stealer. The chemistry between him and Sarah MacMillan (the pimp Pompey) was palpable and even though the character of Abhorson was present on stage less often then Elbow’s, he proved to be the better of the two. Elbow’s lisping dyslexia was, at times, hysterical though.

While not unforgivable, the choice to end the play on a high note (Isabella’s consent to marry the Duke) is not altogether accurate. The original play ended unresolved with Isabella simply looking at the Duke in silence.

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