Stephen Mead’s brilliant performance in the title role of the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Shylock” in 2008 illuminated every facet of the character of one of Shakespeare’s most complicated villains. He returns this year again playing the villain – although a less complicated and more comical one — with the pivotal role of Angelo in director Linda Johnson’s HSF production of “Measure for Measure.” Mead’s scenes are some of the best in the show.
Duke Vincentio leaves Angelo to rule Vienna while he attends to matters of state outside the city. A law on the books makes “fornication” a capital offense and although Duke Vincentio has not enforced it Angelo decides that public morality will be best served by executing of a young nobleman named Claudio for that offense. Claudio’s guilt is obvious — his fiancée, Juliet, is pregnant and soon to give birth.
Claudio’s friend, Lucio, takes a message from death row to the condemned man’s sister, Isabella, a novice nun, begging her to go Angelo and plead for mercy.
Isabella, young and innocent, does so. Angelo, who appears to have been a pillar of moral rectitude until that moment, falls deeply in lust with her. After much hemming and hawing, false starts and innuendos, Angelo eventually informs Isabella that he will spare her brother’s life in exchange for her virginity – in other word, committing the same act with Isabella that Claudio is to die for.
The difference, of course, is that Claudio wants to marry Juliet. All Angelo wants is Isabella’s virginity.
Mead’s work in the scenes where Angelo confronts his new-found feelings of lust and desire are beautifully played. Mead’s finesse as a comic villain in his scenes with Danielle Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak (Isabella) is equally impressive. His success in bringing comedy to a situation that would certainly not be funny in real life is one of the things that make this HSF production the show to see this weekend.
Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak quickly becomes the female focal point of the production. She has several impressive scenes playing innocence wronged opposite Mead but the role also includes a scene with Nicholas Atiburico (Claudio) in which the doomed man breaks down in tears and tells his sister that if sacrificing her virginity will save his life then she should do so.
(An unmarried woman’s virginity was much more important in early 17th century England that it is in Honolulu today, and Claudio’s request therefore would have resonated differently with Shakespearean audiences than here in 2010.)
Isabella is horrified yet forced to review her reasoning. Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak touches the heart in that scene as well.
ONLY THE audience and one of the secondary characters knows that the Duke hasn’t left town at all and is instead playing puppet-master with Angelo and the others while disguised as Friar Lodowick – a man of the cloth with a preternatural ability to be in the right place at the right time and persuade everyone to do his bidding.
Reb Beau Allen (Duke Vincentio) has shown over the years that he can play leading men, thugs, and diverse other character types with equal skill. Here he has the opportunity to develop two characters – a straight and serious leader in the duke, and then the seemingly erratic and almost manic friar.
The disguised duke also takes note of Isabella’s physical charms. Allen earned much laughter from the audience as he played up that aspect of the action on opening night.
Director Johnson boosts the comic impact of several scenes by having various characters pause a beat before delivering the last word in a line and then saying the word almost as if it is a separate thought. Several members of the cast used it to crowd-pleasing effect on opening night.
Although Mead, Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak and Allen have the most interesting characters several other actors also make Johnson’s “Measure for Measure” memorable. Nathan Robinson (Lucio) has several good scenes as an annoying loud-mouth who obviously wants Isabella as his own next sexual conquest; Lucio talks trash about the Duke to Friar Ludowick and then bad-mouths Ludowick to the Duke. It is an impressive performance by Robinson even though such types are toxic in real life.
Victoria Berg (Mariana) brings the timing of a seasoned comedienne to her portrayal of the woman Angelo dumped several years previously after her dowry was lost in shipwreck. Todd Aquino-Michaels (Provost) catches the eye as the law enforcement officer/jailor bound by law to obey Angelo’s orders but persuaded to do Friar Ludowick’s bidding instead.
Johnson and costume designer Alexis Leon move the story from 16th century Vienna to sometime “in the near future” when there is a single world government and a Universal Church of Religious Doctrine. Leon’s costumes are interesting but since there are places in the world today where certain consensual sex acts are capital crimes she could just as easily have dressed the cast to suggest that story was set in that cultural context.
‘Measure for Measure’
» Where: The Arts at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.
» When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday
» Cost: $20 general admission (discounts available)
» Info: (800) 838-3006 or www.hawaiishakes.org/tickets.htm