Three hours goes by quite quickly during Genesius Guild's well-paced, oftentimes hilarious production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. While the piece is considered a "problem play," as the script defies the expectations of a traditional comedy, director Jeff Coussens highlights the work's ample amounts of humor, particularly in the production's first half. And with Coussens and his cast punching up every punchline through inflection and a sort of "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" attitude, I ended up laughing harder at Saturday's presentation, I believe, than I've ever laughed while watching a Shakespeare performance.
The play begins with the incomparable Michael King's Duke of Vienna Vinciento announcing that he's leaving the city for a time, and placing the judge Angelo - a letter-of-the-law type played by Andy Curtiss - in charge during his absence. Vinciento, however, does not leave the city, instead disguising himself as a friar, and King's adept verbal navigation of the Bard's dialogue renders the Duke's lines crystal clear. King's comedic skills, too, are to be applauded. While discussing Angelo's commanded beheading of Claudio (the dashing, heroically poised Tyler Henning) with his pregnant betrothed Juliet (Molly Conrad, who makes her constant fits of tears rather funny), King absently thrusts his thumb into and out of his fist while talking of the couple's fornication, then awkwardly pats Conrad on the head to comfort her.
Hoping to save her brother Claudio, the novice Isabel is enlisted to plead with Angelo to spare Claudio's life. And portraying Isabel, Amanda Wales - one of the few actors cast in a non-comedic part in Measure for Measure - makes up for her character's lack of humor with an abundance of earnestness. Her woeful pleading turns to angry indignation when Angelo offers to call off Claudio's beheading if Isabel will only give him one thing: her virginity.
Curtiss manages to impressively shade his Angelo and emerge as more than just an evil villain. As Angelo contemplates the offer he makes Isabel, Curtiss doesn't deliver his lines with lustful demand, but rather with awareness of the sin he proposes to commit. His Angelo is a man influenced by his own longings, not controlled by them, and even when Angelo puts forth his proposal, there's a concern in Curtiss' voice indicating that what he's doing is wrong ... but he wants to put it out there anyway. It's as if he's hoping that Isabel's consent will soften the sin of their consummation. Isabel, however, does not consent, and Angelo does descend into forcefulness, but until that moment, Curtiss' judge seems a man of virtue, even when contemplating a virtue-less act.
In disguise as a friar, the Duke comes up with a plot to have Isabel agree to sleep with Angelo, but under conditions that would allow him to neither see nor hear her; instead of Isabel, it will be Mariana - a woman once engaged to, and subsequently rejected by, Angelo - who will bed him, as a way of tricking him into fulfilling their betrothal. Cayte Rivera's Mariana is so beautiful, and so admirable for her spirit in the face of adversity, that it's hard to know why Angelo would reject her, rendering him all the more the villainous. And his character is darkened even more when, after believing he's deflowered Isabel, Angelo goes back on his word and continues with his plan to execute Claudio.
In addition to the main characters, there are many notable performances among Measure for Measure's ensemble. Neil Friberg portrays Lucio, the lord who slanders the Duke to the friar and the friar to the Duke, with delightfully flowery aplomb and humor. Michael Callahan elicits the evening's biggest laughs as Elbow, a constable demanding punishment without knowing the exact offense; Callahan not only delivers his lines with sometimes unexpected, always hilarious inflections - oftentimes shouting certain words to great comedic effect - but also gesticulates and makes faces in reaction to what others are saying in ways that stir hearty guffaws. Aaron Sullivan is equally amusing as the bawd Pompey, though in a different way from Callahan; Sullivan's deliveries are more subtle, more natural, with his sly sense of humor making his character both likable and worthy of our laughter.
Earl Strupp spends a short time on stage as Abhorson, the executioner, but makes a big impression through his hunched stature and crotchety attitude. Pat Flaherty much amuses as the somewhat bumbling, simpleminded provost, while Alaina Pascarella's poise in stance and voice are notable in her portrayal of brother manager Mistress Overdone. (Pascarella also sports a breast-amplifying period dress, one of many beautifully-designed, perfectly-fitted pieces created by the always-amazing costume designer Ellen Dixon.)
I could go on and on about all 21 cast members, none of which disappointed. Neither does Geneius Guild's Measure for Measure, which, thanks to a director and cast who recognize the play's humor and bring it to the forefront, makes for a must-see performance that's sure to delight.
Measure for Measure runs at Lincoln Park (11th Avenue & 38th Street, Rock Island) through July 1, and information is available by visiting Genesius.org.