Theater Review: MEASURE STILL FOR MEASURE (Boston Court Pasadena)

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by Tony Frankel on September 30, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


I can’t imagine the work that writer/director Jessica Kubzansky put into the world premiere of her immersive, hybrid-theater, play-within-a-play Measure STILL for Measure. The logistics alone! At Boston Court Pasadena, where Kubzansky is artistic director, utilized are the 99-seat Main Stage, the dressing rooms (seen via video), the lobby, the parking lot, and a flexible space where music performances generally occur. At first, we eavesdrop on actors in the parking lot before the show, as they talk about auditions ‘n’ stuff. Then all the viewers are in the lobby for the first part, wherein we are watching folks prepare for a rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. We find out about the six actors, the director (who is also in the play he’s directing), the stage manager, and the assistant director as they come in and out between the theater, a rehearsal room, and back to the lobby where we sit (or stand).

Jenapher Zheng, Desiree Mee Jung,
and Rob Beitzel as Bruce, the actor/director playing Duke Vincentio
Jenapher Zheng as Frankie, the Assistant Director

One of our most visionary directors, Kubzansky even has her script get all Ayckbournian on us, wherein two scenes are played in real time simultaneously in different rooms — with half the audience in each room. As the first act moves on, I love how we hear backstage chatter that an audience is rarely, if ever, privy to. The dialogue is wholly real and the cast is mostly naturalistic and sometimes convincing with small-talk and cross-talk. I was fascinated, even though the gossip we here really isn’t that juicy — it’s what you’d hear in any rehearsal hall: how to rehearse a scene; actors going over lines; and the director announcing a last-minute cast replacement. But if you pay attention, something is amiss.

Bukola Ogunmola as Dionna, the actor playing Isabella
Mara Klein as Brooke, the actor playing Marianna

The fantastic idea is to find an allegory between Measure for Measure and the company which is rehearsing said play. (I mean, c’mon, Measure STILL for Measure?) Shakespeare’s play centers around Isabella, who, about to enter the novitiate, pleads with Angelo — the Duke pro tem of Vienna — to spare her brother Claudio, who is on death row for impregnating his fiancée out of wedlock. Angelo, who is supposed to be enforcing immorality laws while Duke Vincentio is away (actually, the spying Duke is posing as a friar), tells Isabella he’ll free Claudio if the virginal soon-to-be nun sleeps with him. She’s appalled and threatens to turn him in for blackmail and his proposal. To which he responds, “But Isabella, who will believe you?” In the end, Angelo receives his comeuppance, after which Duke Vincentio suddenly and inexplicably proposes marriage to Isabella. Her response? Silence. No one knows what Shakespeare actually meant by this, but Elizabethan times had no #MeToo movement that would have empowered Isabella to speak out against male privilege. Either she is so happy she is speechless or she is horrified that another powerful man has propositioned her when all she wants to do is become a nun.

Dinah Lenney as Mary, the actor playing Escalus
Bukola Ogunmola and Alexander Matos as J. Todd, the actor playing Claudio

Missing is: why are we here? It seems that the playwright is asking us to view the unordinary in the ordinary. One athletic young actor (the very funny Alexander Matos as J. Todd who plays Claudio) is jumping about with enthusiasm, but we look closer and wonder, Does he really not know stage right from left, or is he actually insecure and fragile? We don’t see much of the actual play performed, so you hope that snippets of Shakespeare’s dialogue will reveal clues. But it’s too much brain work, so you just watch them rehearse. Some may find this first hour pretentious — I rather enjoyed it.

Leo Marks as Sam, the actor playing Angelo
Bukola Ogunmola

Definitely familiarize yourself with the source material first. With that in mind, we — the unseen audience — look for moments which mirror what happens in Measure for Measure. Thus, in the rehearsal, Dionna (Bukola Ogunmola) — the actress playing Isabella — is having issues with the director, Bruce, who also plays Duke Vincentio (Rob Beitzel), but doesn’t say so directly. (“What’s wrong?” she is asked by another performer in the lobby. “Oh, nothing.”) Instead, Dionna — the sole black actor in the show now that her her friend, who is also black, dropped out — is played as moody and aloof throughout the two-hour evening, which, after intermission, moves into the actual theater where we all take a seat and watch the rehearsal go till its end on an unfinished set.

Alexander Matos and Bukola Ogunmola
Desiree Mee Jung as Alexis, the Stage Manager

Dionna does express concern about blocking to the Assistant Director (Jenapher Zheng); she gets a hug from Bruce that seems to be rather long; and she is grabbed by the actor playing Angelo (Leo Marks as Sam), who is instructed by Bruce to play the sexual proposal scene lustily as if he has a raging hard-on.

Dinah Lenney (on platform) Leo Marks, Mara Klein, Bukola Ogunmola,
Robert Beitzel and Randolph Thompson
Mara Klein, Robert Beitzel, Alexander Matos, Randolph Thompson,
Jenapher Zheng and (on screen) Bukola Ogunmola

It seems that Kubzansky is saying not much has changed in 420-odd years. She’s saying that Bruce — who everyone, including himself, thinks is “woke” — is not. Yes, he has a woman (Dinah Lenney as Mary) playing Angelo’s advisor Escalus; he has a diverse cast with a black woman playing Isabella (her brother Claudio is white); and he listens intently to people’s concerns, but in the end won’t fix the play’s ambiguous reaction from Isabella. When Dionna receives a lusty, open-mouthed kiss from Bruce via Duke Vincentio, she tells of the inappropriate kiss to the Stage Manager Alexis (a powerhouse Desiree Mee Jung), who — after saying that Bruce probably just got caught up in the moment — asks Dionna if she wants to report it to Equity (the actor’s union), to which Dionna stands there mute. Lights out. Ah, “But Isabella, who will believe you?” I don’t see this as a spoiler, because the more you understand the wonderful concept before you go in, the more, I believe, you’ll enjoy it.

Desiree Mee Jung and Dinah Lenney
Leo Marks and Robert Beitzel

Pretty meta? You bet. Even set designer François-Pierre Couture‘s first name is mentioned at one point. Kubzansky scores huge points for making all of this happen. There is a lot of grey here, leaving us to interpret the line between good guy and bad guy and speaking out because it’s right, or silence because it helps your career, and much more. I was grateful afterwards that I wasn’t clobbered on the head with message.

There are standout performances. Marks, especially, because his practically preening off-stage actor plays a scene before and after Bruce’s suggestions, and the transformations are not only remarkable, but do seem as if they are happening on the spot. His exasperation from being fed line readings by Bruce are SO actor.

Alexander Matos and Randolph Thompson as Griffin, the actor playing Lucio

The performance of Ms. Ogunmola, which is rather one-note downtrodden in the first half (and this was no doubt a director’s choice), has her seem entirely miscast as Isabella, as she was unable to deliver lines in a way that has us believing why Bruce would have cast her in the first place (he had intimated he could replace her if she wasn’t happy in the role the way he was directing it). The replacement actor, Brooke, didn’t have much Shakespeare dialogue to offer, but when Mara Klein did recite her lines as Mariana, who was jilted by Angelo because her dowry was lost at sea, it electrified the room. Sorry, folks, can’t figure this one out. Did Kubzansky instruct Ogunmola to act less convincingly because she was having doubts about how scenes were being directed? I was actually mad at Bruce the director (not Beitzel the actor, who was phenomenal) for casting her. Was this intentional? Is Kubzansky saying that Bruce is a monster predator and cast her just because he’s turned on by her? And why would he have, when he could get any actor in town?

Hmmm. Such a wonderful concept, it just needs to be rethought with a clearer vision for the acting styles, which could stand to be more delineated between offstage and -on. There is much to chew on here, and I recommend it with the caveat that some not into Shakespeare or backstage shenanigans could find it all a bit incomprehensible for all we have just experienced. When the scenes do play out with authenticity, we are witnessing an astounding achievement.

The cast (Hannah Burnett)

production photos by Brian Hashimoto

Measure STILL for Measure
Boston Court Performing Arts Center
70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 15, 2023
for tickets, call 626.683.6801 or visit Boston Court

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Suzy October 17, 2023 at 11:44 am

The actor playing Claudio is not white, he’s Brazilian and Puerto Rican. The actor playing Lucio is also black, and Dionna is not the “sole black actor in the show”.


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