Quid pro quo?

Blackmail and other trickery in Blue Room’s fine rendering of Shakespeare problem play

Rob Wilson as Lord Angelo and Alex Hilsee as Isabella in the Blue Room’s <i>Measure For Measure</i>.

Rob Wilson as Lord Angelo and Alex Hilsee as Isabella in the Blue Room’s Measure For Measure.

Photo Joe Hilsee

Measure For Measure shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Jan. 25.
Tickets: $15 (Thursdays, pay what you can)
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

It’s said that a Shakespeare play is being performed somewhere in the world every day. Here in Chico, we’ve seen two productions in the last couple of months, Macbeth in October and Measure for Measure, currently playing in the Blue Room Theatre downtown.

It would be impossible to find two more dissimilar but equally successful productions.

Macbeth was staged at night in Lower Bidwell Park using natural features as its set—no seats, no stage—and flash-lighting provided by audience members, who followed the actors on foot as they moved from scene to scene on park trails.

The CN&R’s reviewer, Arts Editor Jason Cassidy, called the Legacy Stage production “a revelation.”

In contrast, the Blue Room’s staging of Measure for Measure uses a minimalist set—a few chairs, some wooden railings—to render a close-in reading of the play. The focus is almost entirely on the actors, and rightly so. The always excellent Blue Room players do Shakespeare justice with this staging.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” which is to say it is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, but rather an examination of the tension between law and order and the natural tendencies of humans.

As the play begins, disorder reigns in Vienna. The ruling Duke Vincentio (Shawn Galloway) has been lax and allowed its morality laws to be broken. To repair things, he announces his intention to leave town for a while and appoints a hardcore moralist, Lord Angelo (Rob Wilson), to run the city in his absence.

The Duke doesn’t leave, however. Instead he disguises himself as a friar and sticks around to see how Angelo does. What he discovers is that Angelo has convicted young Claudio (Joseph Slupski) of fornication because his girlfriend Juliet (Eva Hilsee) is pregnant out of wedlock, a crime punishable by death.

Claudio’s sister Isabella (Alex Hilsee), who is about to enter a nunnery, pleads with Angelo to save her brother’s life. He agrees to do so—but only if she will sleep with him. He gives her a day to decide.

Horrified by the idea of surrendering her virginity to Angelo, she goes to the prison to tell Claudio of her decision. Fearing death, he pleads with her to go through with the act and save him, much to her dismay.

The Duke, still disguised as a friar, overhears this conversation and has an idea for saving Claudio’s life. It’s a complex plan involving Angelo’s former fiancée Mariana (also played by Eva Hilsee), the famous “head trick” designed to fool Angelo into believing Claudio had been executed, and having Mariana fill in for Isabella in Angelo’s bed.

At this point in the play, all of the threads come together: Claudio is saved, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, and the Duke proposes to Isabella (though it’s not clear whether she accepts).

There’s an entertaining low-comedy subplot involving Claudio’s licentious (and witty) friend Lucio (Owen Hansen) and a pimp named Pompey (Slupski again) that also is resolved at this point.

Joe Hilsee directed and, I suspect, edited the text to enable some of the actors to play more than one role. Eva Hilsee, for example, has five roles, and Joseph Slupski has three.

Measure for Measure isn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, but hey, it’s Shakespeare, a genius even when he’s not at his best. This production offers a clear and accessible interpretation that is well worth seeing.