Volume 76, Number 5 | June 21 - 27 2006


“Measure for Measure”
Hipgnosis Theater Company
Flamboyan Theater
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center
107 Suffolk Street
Through July 2nd

Photo by Julie Baber

The Hipgnosis Theater Company’s production of “Measure for Measure” avoids comparisons to American politics.

‘Measure for Measure,’ minus present-day politics

By Rachel Breitman

Measure for Measure – one of Shakespeare’s darkest comedies – holds a magnifying glass up to the heart of corrupt politicians trying to rid their society of impure desires.

Its characters closely resemble present-day politicians who hide their skeletons with a façade of holiness, but the Hipgnosis Theater Company’s recent production took pains to avoid pat comparisons to American politics.

“The world that Shakespeare creates in these plays is more interesting than our own, so it would be a disservice to the play to straightjacket it into modern examples,” said the show’s director, John Castro. But he didn’t deny that the cast was somewhat inspired by the modern-day role of religious fundamentalism in government. “There is no direct analogue, but there is a sort of similar dynamic in the way that fear is being used in the control of people to get them to sacrifice their personal freedom for what is dubious security,” Castro added.

While many of the actors have performed together as part of the Compass Rose Theater Company, this is the first production of the newly formed Hipgnosis. The company’s often mispelled name is a combination of hipness, hypnosis, and gnosis, or the pursuit of knowledge through inner exploration. (Castro admits he stole the idea from a design company in the 70’s that did album covers for Led Zepelin and Yes.)

The performers are confident and facile in their Elizabethan tongue, and well-versed in the bawdy brutality of the Bard, with cast credits including “As You Like It,” “Winter’s Tale,” and “Taming the Shrew.” Rife with contradictions, “Measure for Measure” is just what the company had in mind to catapult them into a future of challenging dramatic performances.

“We are going to try to focus on plays that are thorny, difficult, and classical. The hardest thing is to open these ambiguities up and let them fly,” said Castro.

The play’s battle between the licensed and the licentious takes place on a well-lit stage, with the audience seated in a surrounding rectangle of fold-out chairs, facing one another in uncomfortable judgment that blurs the lines of who is on and off stage.

The Duke of Vienna (Nick Brooks) has briefly abdicated his throne to the self-righteous Lord Angelo (David Look), who promptly begins to fill the jails with lovers, prostitutes, drunkards, and bookies.

Isabella (Erika Bailey), an incipient nun, begs Angelo to loosen his grip on the city’s vices, and pardon her brother, who is condemned to die for premarital sex. The straight-backed and austere Angelo crusades against the weakness of the flesh, until he is so overtaken by his own ruthless desires that he offers Isabella an outrageous trade: her virginity for her brother’s life.

Dressed all in white, as the token character who is pure of heart, Isabella craves the strictures of the nunnery. In her pitch-perfect performance, Bailey, a classically trained voice teacher, embodies Isabella with a tortured severity.

The total counterpoint is Brooks’ gleefully manipulative Duke, who believes that all problems can be solved with simple substitutions of costumes, bedmates, and death row inmates. Traveling incognito as a man of the cloth during Angelo’s restrictive reign, the Duke brokers the play’s deals in a monk’s robes, like a card shark for the cloister.

The play deals in ironic dualities, with Pompey (Francis Kelly), the local pimp, humorously bartering his freedom through the role of hangman’s apprentice, and an incompetent cop Elbow (Demetri Bonaros) impotently chasing the town’s hustlers in circles.

Providing comic relief in the face of dark truths, Elbow joins Lucio (Julian Rozzell, Jr.) the town gossip, and Pompey (Francis Kelly) in hilarious shenanigans that soften the play’s harsh angles.

The sheer physicality of their performances enlivens a story that focuses on the lengths people will go to imprison the baser desires of the body.

“We started doing physical workshops with the entire company as a way to just build a common language. This play stretched our abilities, interests, and curiosities in ways that may not be evident when you pick up a Shakespearian text,” said Bonaros, who also produces.

And the production doesn’t clean up the tawdry desires and hidden agendas in a tidy line of resolving marriages. While un-judgmental, Hipgnosis’ “Measure for Measure” refuses to pardon the gleefully naughty characters, even though the script begs forgiveness with the line, “They say, best men are moulded out of faults/And, for the most, become much more the better/For being a little bad.”

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