By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Ida Prosky's book "You Don't Need Four Women to Play Shakespeare" explored the comparative lack of opportunity women have in classic theater, and Prosky had a very good seat at Friday's opening of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company's all-female "Measure for Measure."
"Our answer, Ida, is you need about a dozen," Artistic Director Marcus Kyd said in a brief speech before the show. The production -- the troupe's second "Riot Grrrls" Shakespeare in as many years -- is done in muted modern business-suit drag and gets uneven results, but some of the performers, Kimberly Gilbert and Michelle Shupe in particular, help director Lise Bruneau prove her point: Where the acting is strong and thoughtful, the show will get you hooked.
That's all Bruneau is after, for despite the updating and cross-dressing, she doesn't try bending "Measure for Measure" into some sort of acceptable modern shape. In fact, Bruneau and her cast seem to like the tale as it is, with its straightforward plot hinging on a hypocritical moralist and the shocked nun whose virtue he tries to compromise.
In this dark Shakespearean comedy, Vienna has become a decadent cesspool, so the softhearted Duke who limply runs the place (an engagingly reflective Shupe) takes a leave of absence and puts the righteous-minded Angelo in charge (Gilbert, looking pulpit-ready in a pale blue suit and slicked hair). Angelo rules with an iron fist, quickly condemning to death the likable young Claudio for making consensual whoopee with his fiancee.
Claudio's sister Isabella -- the nun -- pleads on his behalf, and the lusty spell she inadvertently casts on Angelo is a doozy. Gilbert takes this onslaught of male libido seriously, playing Angelo's lovestruck speeches with confusion and dismay at the sudden signals the masculine body is delivering. Gilbert, a company member with both the Punks and Woolly Mammoth, is an intuitively intense performer, and she's a terrific fit for the strict yet fervent Angelo.
Shupe is appropriately cooler as the Duke, who slinks back to Vienna in priestly disguise to monitor Angelo's reforms; her centered wisdom gives the show a balance it badly needs. The staging in the tight quarters of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is a bit of a mess for a while, with party music overwhelming the verse as raucous pimps and hookers trawl the tiny stage (adding the occasional "yo" and "homey" to the dialogue).
The design (by men, for what it's worth) is stark, with not much of a setting beyond two slightly ridiculous high chairs -- the seats of power -- fixed to the back wall. Bruneau doesn't exactly control the tone, with the gruff and bawdy stuff seeming less wild than sloppy (though it's amusing that the cast cheers briefly each time the word "punk" pops up in Shakespeare's text). On the other end, Isabella's despair over the sexual blackmail Angelo imposes is undersold in Esther Williamson's dry performance. The shortcomings, in other words, have nothing to do with the single-gender approach.
Moments from this show will linger: Shupe's wry understanding throughout the long denouement, the awful violence of Gilbert's Angelo as the character ruthlessly presses Isabella to the wall, and Gilbert's penitent shame as Williamson and Tonya Beckman Ross (playing a lover Angelo once discarded) carefully guide the show to a genuinely graceful end. Several other performers also fare well, and while women have played major Shakespearean men in Washington before -- Kate Eastwood Norris as Richard III, Holly Twyford and Cam Magee as part of a tag-team Hamlet -- you'd like to see Taffety Punk carry on with the project. The city is awash in classical theater and capable actresses; the more opportunities for the twain to intersect, the better.
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lise Bruneau. Scenic design, Lex Davis; costumes, Scott Hammar; lights, Jason Aufdem-Brinke; sound, Josh Taylor. With Toni Rae Brotons, Kelsey Rae Grouge, Sheila Hennessey, Shannon Listol, Rachel Lee Poole, Sara Waisanen, Abby Wood. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 10 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit http://tix.taffetypunk.com.