Theater: Md. state senator adapts ‘Measure for Measure’

December 6, 2011

When Jamie Raskin, a Maryland state senator, American University law professor, and self-proclaimed “Shakespeare fanatic,” was undergoing chemotherapy this past year, he had a little downtime on his hands.   So he adapted Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” with ­Lumina Studio Theatre’s executive and artistic director, David Minton.

Underachiever.

Raskin, who says he now has “a clean bill of health,” was already considering adapting “Measure for Measure,” loaded as it is with intriguing material. “In the bare skeleton of the story, you’ve got political corruption, judicial corruption, sexual harassment, abuse of power and the death penalty,” he said. Raskin knew Minton already (Raskin’s children participated in Lumina productions) and had told Minton to reach out if he ever did a production of “Measure for Measure.” Though he’d enjoyed writing one-act plays in high school and college, Raskin hadn’t done any professional dramatic writing until this year.

Lumina’s adaptation lifts one of Shakespeare’s problem plays out of its original setting in Vienna and drops it into the Middle East.

“The play fits what’s going on in the Middle East very well,” said Minton, “that region of the world where women have been traditionally repressed . . . so in some ways, our ‘Measure for Measure’ is a feminist parable.”


Laura Kennedy Long, Marcus Gordon, and Carmen Dominguez-Estrada in Lumina Studio Theatre's production of “Measure for Measure.” (Dianne Dumais)

The actors, all teenagers, are predominately female, so many roles of male authority are, in this iteration, female authorities.

And, Raskin pointed out, the women are not as weak as they may appear. “Shakespeare endowed the female characters with secrets and quiet powers of their own.”

“I’m very much a feminist and always have been,” said Minton. “I’m always looking for ways to find, in traditional scripts, [how we] maybe can think about these things differently.”

The teenage cast, Raskin said, has not failed to impress. “These kids are awesomely precocious. It’s scary to see what they can do.” But, he added, there are still some very teenage moments. “You can have two kids playing the lead roles, engaged in an incredibly serious exchange of harsh views and deep moral reflection. And then they are unable to hold hands afterwards because they get giggly about it.

“They’re actually capable of doing extremely sophisticated, dramatic analysis and very subtle acting. But if two actors have to exchange a kiss, it’s a full-blown crisis.”

Friday through Sunday at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. www.luminastudio.org. 301-565-2281.

In the Rothko Room

Edward Gero, who plays abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in “Red,” has been, unsurprisingly, thinking a lot about the way we study art.

“We tend to look at art and say ‘It’s pretty’ or ‘There’s a story there,’ ” Gero said. “But Rothko was hoping to have something contemplative. He wanted you to sit with it. To see the layers of the painting. . . . To immerse in the work.”

So Gero did exactly that. He went to the Phillips Collection. and sat in the Rothko Room. He read the part of the play in which Rothko instructs his assistant on how to look at paintings. He read it aloud, to the paintings, and then he followed the guidelines. For three hours.

A staged reading of scenes from “Red,” which will come to Arena Stage in January, is being held at the Phillips on Thursday night. Arena is co-producing the play with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where it played before arriving in Washington with the same cast, design team and director, Robert Falls.

Gero, it seems, has almost evenly divided his time between traditional preparation for the show — rehearsing, memorizing lines, practicing blocking — and a more, as Rothko would put it, immersed readying of self: keeping a blog to chronicle and reflect on the making of the play, researching Rothko’s life, and sitting alone in the Rothko Room to soak up the man’s work.

“Red” is a two-person play, a long meditation on Rothko’s effort at completing a set of murals. In typical tormented-artist fashion, the process involves Rothko delving into all the Big Questions: Can art be profitable and maintain integrity? What is the impact of loss? How do we come to terms with the passage of time? He does all this grand grappling with Ken, played by Patrick Andrews, who as Rothko’s assistant is sort of the Apprentice to his Sorcerer, dealing with issues of his own: How much of the grand tradition of Rothko must he honor? And can he do it while still embarking on his own individual path?

“It really is at its core about a relationship between these two men,” said Gero. “Generationally, what makes art? What is good art? And in some ways, it’s a bit of a critique of popular culture. Rothko . . . took the making of art very, very seriously. He asks a lot of the viewer: to spend time with his paintings. To delve and reflect. And I don’t know that we’re of a culture that wants to do that. He bangs up against the pop art world.”

Dec. 8 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, www. phillipscollection.org, 202-387-2151.

Holiday revelry

The best way to describe the “Christmas Revels,” the celebration of the winter solstice held at George Washington Lisner Auditorium, is “big.”

At any given moment in the show, 100 people could be onstage. Those people come from every walk of theatrical life: trained actors, a children’s chorus, a teen chorus, an adult chorus, professional musicians, tradition bearers from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. The show is seen by 10,000 people over the course of the run.

“Revels, in and of itself, is a sprawling undertaking,” said Greg Lewis, Washington Revels executive director. “Revels weaves in music, dance, drama, story and ritual.”

The narrative loosely follows two adventurers who happen upon a treasure when they travel back in time from the Spanish Renaissance to 10th-century Cordoba.

The treasure discovered by the adventurers turns out to be magical; the objects come to life when touched. Singing and dancing ensue, woven together with poetry and drama.

It’s a massive cross-cultural endeavor: Arab-Andalusian music back to back with Sephardic songs; Spanish folk carols alongside North African dance.

This is the 29th year Washington has put on a Revels show — there are numerous other Revels cities across the country — and, Lewis said, there are audience members returning this year for the 25th time. “There’s something about Revels that reaches to a core. This sense of creating community and becoming part of a community that crosses these cultural lines.

“At the real root bottom, it’s the very fact of presenting, onstage, the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions together. . . . That’s worthy of celebration.”

Friday through Sunday at GW Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. www.revelsdc.org. 1-800-595-4849.

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