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Shakespeare meets Superfly in Measure for Measure

Bold production places the Bard in the 1970s


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Whether you're experiencing how Johann Strauss the Younger extols Vienna's vitality or how Shakespeare dissects its decay, Die Fledermaus and Measure for Measure share a key orientation that dominates the stories they tell. Looking at the Austrian capital 270 years apart, the two masters view Vienna as a city of rampant sensuality, licentiousness and moral corruption.

Strauss and his librettists took the easy way in dealing with the weaknesses of the Viennese, laughing at them all in an elegant farce. But Shakespeare took the hard way in 1604. Within the framework of a comedy, he scrutinized the problematic city from the top on down. Even his hero and his heroine aren't exempt from his merciless analysis.

In its current Charlotte Shakespeare Festival production, their first at Booth Playhouse, Vienna looks curiously American. Elliot LaPlante's set design, brilliantly lit by Trista Bremer, transplants us to yet another era, the 1970s, plastered with crass billboards that coarsen Shakespeare's creations by linking them to colas, cigarettes and such. Meanwhile, the underclass of Vienna — the whores, the madame and the pimp — are decked out in flamboyant afro wigs, shades and, in the case of the pimp, Superfly threads.

So director Tiger Reel isn't taking a cautious approach to a play that is devilishly difficult to stage effectively. Compared with attempts that I've seen by Shakespeare Carolina, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Charlotte Shakespeare that expired back in the '90s, the Reel adaptation becomes the best after a rocky, splashy start.

The moralistic deputy, Lord Angelo, temporarily in charge of Vienna, is the villain of the piece. Seeking a quick fix to the moral laxity of the city, he enforces an antiquated law to make an example of Claudio, who has been caught fornicating with the pregnant woman he intends to marry, condemning Juliet's hapless fiancé to death. Claudio reaches out to his sister Isabella, a postulant at a nearby nunnery, hoping that she can soften Angelo's heart.

Instead, Isabella enflames Angelo's lust. To gain her brother's freedom, she must yield up her virginity to the mighty hypocrite — an unthinkable option for the chaste Isabella. Yet when she consults the imprisoned Claudio, she is amazed to find that Claudio actually values his own life more than his sister's chastity, no matter how much they might sacrifice in their afterlives. It's a moral dilemma sufficient to fill an entire evening in a Restoration tragedy.

But our hero, Duke Vincentio, steps in to save the day. Having absented himself to see the town he rules from the inside — and hoping that Angelo will prove his mettle and reverse the laxity of his own regime — Vincentio has disguised himself as a wandering friar. He has overheard the quarrelsome dialogue between Claudio and Isabella. But instead of simply tossing off his disguise, returning to his throne and meting out justice, Vincentio devises an intricate plot that involves duping his deputy, conspiring with Angelo's former fiancée, and staging a bogus execution.

On this circuitous route to justice, Vincentio causes the virtuous Juliet and the angelic Isabella — whom he loves! — excruciating pain. What kind of beastly hero is this? It's the central question that scuttles most productions of Measure for Measure, no matter what era you stage it in.

Reel solves the pesky problem with a single masterstroke, confounding our expectations by casting Christian Casper as Angelo and Robert Lee Simmons as Vincentio. Perennially a hero after his 2006 debut as the detective in Shear Madness, Casper has shown his dark and devilish side more recently in two notable CAST productions, as Beethoven in 33 Variations and as Satan in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Even as he disintegrates into corruption and debauchery, Casper can agonize feelingly as Angelo, recognizing his sinful lust while he is powerless to change his evil path.

As for Simmons, Reel turns him loose to do his over-the-top thing that we recall from previous bravura turns in Mr. Marmalade, Killer Joe and multiple Moving Poets excesses. The miraculous result is that Vincentio becomes transformed into an extravagant showman, keeping everyone in suspense or agony for the sheer joy of watching his new masterminding, manipulative power becoming manifest. That may be a superficial explanation compared to what I see as Vincentio's true motive. Stretching out the plot with his baroque twists and inventions is Vincentio's way of taking on the power and capriciousness of the gods. And if Isabella is more inclined to give herself to God rather than Man, what better way is there to woo her?

All this wouldn't really work if Simmons didn't lightly dust his showmanship and arrogance with moments of honesty and soft spontaneity. Because he does, this may be the most moving Simmons performance I've seen.

Of course, another necessity is that Isabella be worth all the desiring and derring-do that are lavished upon her, and I can assure you that Gretchen McGinty does that and more in a role that — aside from her resistance to temptation — is very much like Angelo's. In the most radical alteration of the script, Lucio becomes our narrator while moonlighting as a muckraking radio DJ, talkshow host and reporter. Chad Calvert is at his urbane best in all these manifestations, so satisfying in his comical comeuppance.

Devin Clark, doubling as Claudio and the Superfly pimp Pompey, is another indication that the excellence of Charlotte Shakespeare's cast goes far deeper. Kudos go out to the other chief corrupters and corruptees of Vienna, including Alan England as the condemned prisoner Barnadine, Corlis Hayes as the swivel hipped Mistress Overdone, and Dan O'Sullivan as that madame's obedient sex slave.

I haven't checked in on High Point or Asheville in recent years, but with this effort, Charlotte Shakespeare can confidently claim to be the best of the Bard that the Carolinas has to offer.