Political and moral hypocrisy never seem to grow old or die out. William Shakespeare may have understood this best, as such hypocrisy plays a part in several of his classic plays.
"Measure for Measure," however, may serve as the Bard's penultimate indictment of such contradictory impulses within us human beings.
Now being performed by the Long Beach Shakespeare Company through March 18, "Measure for Measure" was first performed in England during the early years of King James' conservative reign (the monarch is referenced in the play). Shakespeare updated an older drama involving a moralistic deputy duke, Angelo, and several characters who challenge his rigid stance. Angelo has sentenced young Claudio to death by beheading for having outlawed premarital sex with his fiancee Juliet, which became apparent with her subsequent pregnancy.
Those leading the charge against Angelo are Claudio's sister, Isabella, who is preparing to become a nun; Duke Vincentio, who appointed Angelo to his office while he was immersed in philosophical studies; and Pompey, the hapless bawd, or pimp, for a local brothel owner. Few aside from Lady Escalus, Angelo's second-in-command, are on his side and even she turns against him by the play's climax.
"Measure for Measure" is one of Shakespeare's comedies despite its serious storyline and adult themes. Pompey, a simple-minded but devoted constable named Elbow, and a man-hungry nun help provide welcome comic relief. All ends happily with even the villainous Angelo shown compassion and finding love. Due to the play's subject matter, however, the production is recommended for high school-age students and older viewers. A shadowy but sexually suggestive tableau sets the scene before the performance even begins.
Helen Borgers, the company's longtime Artistic Director, stages this production with a keen understanding of the time period as well as parallels to our current, more right-wing political climate. She also keeps the action moving at a fast clip. Ericka Bailey's set design is minimal, with a versatile curtain running the width of the stage providing changes in location as needed. Ramzi Jneid's costumes are exquisite, as is typically the case with Long Beach Shakespeare Company.
Of the numerous productions I have seen there over the last year and a half, "Measure for Measure" features the finest cast and individual performances. Jesse Seann Atkinson makes a subtly sinister Angelo, although he startled all in the audience at one point when he loudly, angrily confronts poor Isabella. As Isabella, Amanda Swearingen is piety incarnate and truly heartbreaking as she finds herself torn between saving her brother's life or sacrificing her own virtue. Kyle McGruther, a talented new arrival to Long Beach, is a similarly virtuous Vincentio, especially since he spends most of his time disguised as a priest.
Andy Kallok as Pompey, Sarah Hoeven as Mistress Overdone, and Ketty Citterio in multiple roles bring great comic timing and physicality. Best of all in terms of making the audience laugh is Emily Hansen's Elbow, who employs an anachronistic Texan or Southern accent and officious stance to hilarious advantage. Alexander Williams and Aziza Gabrielle Stewart are fetching as the lovelorn, unfortunate Claudio and Juliet. Megan Lennon as the prison provost and Randi Tahara as Lady Escalus round out the exceptional performances.
"Measure for Measure" is presented at the Richard Goad Theatre in Bixby Knolls, 4250 Atlantic Ave. For tickets, visit lbshakespeare.org or call (562) 997-1494.