Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review - America: A Problem Play (On the Square Productions and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Bryan Stryker

In an era when wiretapping is conducted sans warrants, government officials determine that they can ignore portions of the Geneva Convention, citizens willingly give up personal privacy and rights under the Patriot Act, only to see how intrusive the government could and would be, and leaders in both major parties are guilty of major moral failings, Deborah Wolfson’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s problem play Measure for Measure comes at a timely point in our country’s history.

America: A Problem Play doesn’t veer much from its original source. Duke Vincentio (Kareem M. Lucas) is leaving on a diplomatic mission and temporarily turns over power to Angelo (Devon Anderson), a trusted judge. Under the Duke’s leadership, things have gotten a wee bit lax in the enforcing of local laws. Sadly for the citizenry, Angelo believes in a firm hand when dispensing judgment. There is no grey area for him; there is only the crime and the prescribed punishment. When Claudio (Michael Swarz) is arrested for impregnating his girlfriend, he is promptly arrested and sentenced according to the law – death. His sister Isabella (Samantha Debicki) intercedes with Angelo on his behalf and learns that the only way that she can free her brother is to sleep with him, thereby exposing himself as a hypocrite. Meanwhile Duke Vincentio has disguised himself as a local friar in order to keep an eye on Angelo. He befriends Isabella, who divulges what is being asked of her. Together they concoct a plan to one-up Angelo at his own game, and submit him to the same punishment that he rendered to Claudio.

The title for Shakespeare’s play comes from the Bible:

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. – Matthew 7:2

For many years it was considered, oddly enough, to be a comedy but was then reclassified as a “problem play” where the situation that is put forth by the playwright is representative of a social issue or problem. For playwright and director Deborah Wolfson, the inspiration for this piece clearly comes from the George W. Bush presidency, and what she views as a stricter society with less personal liberties than in past years. While still holding true to the original piece, Wolfson has also interspersed the writings of author Naomi Wolf throughout the piece. These moments seem jarring as characters slip out of their Shakespearean dialogue into a more modern jargon, but they still fit the context of the play.

Samantha Debicki shines as the conflicted Isabella, torn between sacrificing her virtue for her brother’s life. Her scenes with Devon Anderson’s diabolical Angelo are riveting to watch. Kareem M. Lucas is a suitable Duke Vincentio, though at times his focus seems to waver. In the ensemble, the comic relief of Nik Kourtis’ Pompey and Anna Marquardt’s Mistress Overdone are a delight, helping break the tense moments with a well-timed zinger.

Zane Robert Enloe’s set, six simple freestanding, doublesided art works, helps the audience understand the transition in power. With the cast members rotating the pictures to their other side, Enloe helped reinforce playwright Wolfson’s vision.

America: A Problem Play
Written and Directed by Deborah Wolfson
Set Design: Zane Robert Enloe
Lighting Design: Matt Lausi
Costume Design: Nicky Smith
Production Stage Manager: Debra Stunich
Some Text & Inspiration: Naomi Wolf

Featuring: Devon Anderson (Angelo), Samantha Debicki (Isabella), Bethany Geraghty (Provost), Jeffrey Golde (Friar Thomas/Servant), Nik Kourtis (Pompey), Kareem M. Lucas (Duke Vincentio), Anna Marquardt (Mistress Overdone), Kyle Masteller (Lucio), Aaliyah Sams (Escalus), Michael Swarz (Claudio), Emily Tucker (Mariana)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity

Closed June 25th

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