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'Measure for Measure' a pleasure

OSF opened its 2011 season with Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and, once again, Artistic Director Bill Rauch has given us a production that breaks with all preconceptions and makes Shakespeare accessible and relevant for younger audiences as well as for Festival stalwarts.

"Measure for Measure" is usually labeled a "problem" play. It's not frequently performed. It is categorized as one of Shakespeare's comedies because it has a — sort-of — happy ending, but the themes examined are not the sunny, charming ruses of young love gone astray or twins traded at birth. Rather, "Measure for Measure" deals with the concept of legislating morality and the hypocrisy and abuse of power that often accompanies it.

Bill Rauch, here wearing his director hat, successfully manages to present this material as both a straightforward morality play and an absurd comedy. He doesn't avoid the fact that the central characters and the plot are dark and more than a bit distasteful. Instead, he has chosen to emphasize the comedic minor characters and their essential honesty and decency as the play's pragmatic counterpoint.

Rauch has given this production a Latin beat and a counterculture style. He has set the action in a nameless sleek urban area in the 1970s, included a strolling female mariachi band (Las Colibri) as an intermittent chorus and thrown in some dialogue in Spanish as well.

This "Measure for Measure" absolutely crackles — there are no low points, no place the action drags. The pacing is flawless.

To say that the plot of "Measure for Measure" is bleak is an understatement. Duke Vincentio (Anthony Heald) leaves "Vienna" for a mysterious vacation and delegates authority to his deputy, Angelo (René Millán) and his chief of staff, Escalus (Isabell Monk O'Connor). Twenty years earlier, the Duke had proclaimed some very strict morality laws forbidding fornication, prostitution and debauchery but he never enforced them. Now it's "no more Mr. Nice Guy," but the Duke is leaving the enforcement — and the backlash — to Angelo.

Angelo doesn't have a problem with this. He's that sort of smug moral rectitude "family values" kind of guy. His first public "example" is Claudio (Frankie J. Alvarez), who has knocked up his fiancée. No matter that these two really love each other and are planning to marry when they have enough money. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy is fornication. Mercy is simply a form of moral relativism. Claudio is to be summarily executed.

However, when Claudio's beautiful sister Isabela (Stephanie Beatriz), a novice nun, pleads for her brother's life, Angelo is smitten. He offers a deal. He'll spare Claudio if Isabela gives him her virginity. And, by the way, if she's thinking of denouncing him, who'll believe her? Isabela, on the other hand, doesn't see a choice here. Claudio's life or her chastity? Claudio's going to die.

Meanwhile, the Duke has disguised himself as a friar and is sort of hanging around town to see how the new policy is working. To his credit, he is appalled. He comes up with a couple of ideas — the "bed trick," using Angelo's jilted fiancée Mariana (Brooke Parks) and the "head trick," when Angelo reneges on his deal to spare Claudio — to thwart Angelo, save Claudio and make the Duke look good at the same time.

This "Measure for Measure" really belongs to its vibrant minor characters. Rauch has made Claudio's best friend Lucio (Kenajuan Bentley) into a black '70s dude with an afro hairdo and an Eddie Murphy attitude. The madam-with-the-heart-of gold, Mistress Overdone (Cristofer Jean), is a wonderfully over-the-top drag queen and her outrageous bartender Pompey (Ramiz Monsef) plays it with smooth snark. The Provost (Tony DeBruno) is straight from New Jersey and Elbow (Tyrone Wilson), the malaprop constable, seems to be from the West Indies.

Scenic designer Clint Ramos has provided a remarkable gleaming set that morphs with the rapid pacing of the play into a conference room, a seedy night club, a courtroom, a skid row mission, a mental hospital and a bleak high rise office — all with appropriate video and projections (by Shawn Sagady) through the backdrop of windows. Lighting design is by David Weiner. Costumes are by ESosa, who did the marvelous "historical" fantasies for last year's "American Night." Susie Garcia, the violinist of Las Colibri, composed the haunting music and provided the arrangements under the supervision of veteran OSF contributor Michael Keck.

Bill Rauch's director's notes talk about the Festival's ongoing quest to find connections between Shakespeare's words and "our vibrantly diverse lives in contemporary America." This production of "Measure for Measure," like last season's extraordinary "Hamlet" is another milestone towards that goal.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.