Mixed bag for mixed bag

Measure for Measure

You’ll always feel like the Duke is watching you.

You’ll always feel like the Duke is watching you.

Measure for Measure; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday; $10-$15. Big Idea Theatre, 1616 Del Paso Boulevard; (916) 960-3036; www.bigideatheatre.com. Through April 30.
Rated 4.0

Measure for Measure is a play that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself—is it a comedy, a tragedy, or something in between? In Shakespeare’s version of Vienna, where the Duke hasn’t been enforcing his own laws for quite some time, things have pretty much gone to pot. Rather than make his own repairs, though, the Duke turns it over to a rigidly moralistic lieutenant, takes on a disguise and proceeds to put his subjects through a series of emotional wringers and character tests.

It is, in fact, a play with a shortage of nice people and a complicated view of morals and ethics. Measure for Measure is also very intriguing, and this production by Big Idea Theatre does it justice.

Set in a run-down urban jungle—a very stark and flexible design by Brian Harrower—Big Idea’s Vienna is more like Alkali Flat, with its mix of upright nuns (Isabella, played by Gina Williams) and sex workers (Mistress Overdone, also played by Williams). The binaries are drawn quickly and assisted by the co-directors’ decision to double the roles. Kirk Blackinton and Katie Chapman have each actor (with the exception of the Duke, played with plenty of privilege by Blair Leatherwood) take on at least two roles: One role is “high,” in terms of character and standing, the other “low.”

So we have nobleman Claudio, imprisoned for failing to complete all the wedding paperwork before impregnating his bride, and the pimp, Pompey, both played by Justin Lee Chapman; Williams playing a whore and a nun; Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly as the moralistic judge, Angelo, and a drunken convict; and Harrower as a debauched gentleman and a hilariously detail-oriented executioner. Melissa Rae Frago and Josephine Longo both do triple roles, but with the same sore of extremes, making the point clear: No person is completely good or evil. Abandon the binary thinking, or miss the point.

Leatherwood’s Duke is played as torn between his concern for order and his desire to see his people treated fairly; that makes him less skeezy than he might have been, although he remains manipulative and entitled. As Angelo, Heatherly brings some genuine conflict to the role; we believe that he is surprised by his own capacity for lust—but he still succumbs both rapidly and completely. Williams’ Isabella is, however, a bit too much the goody-two-shoes; her Mistress Overdone seems both more natural and more whole.

The supporting players do fairly well—though as so often happens with productions of Shakespeare, the concern with getting the language right deprives the characterizations of fullness and depth. The exception is Harrower, whose Lucio is a lovely “man behaving badly,” while his executioner, Abhorson, is straight out of Mel Brooks and just as funny.

This Measure for Measure is exactly the right sort of mixed bag: It tells us the truth about leadership—like, oh, say, “family values” political operatives—which claims the high ground and forgets the nature of humanity. We’re never that good or that bad; people are always a pretty mixed bag.