A powerful government official offers to suspend a sex offender’s death sentence in exchange for a night of love-making with the convicted man’s virginal sister. Sound like a scene from a day or nighttime soap? It certainly could be, but is in fact the central conflict of William Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, about as contemporary a play as the Bard ever wrote, even four-plus centuries after its first performance. No wonder A Noise Within’s “present time” setting in a “modern capital city” works so well in this first production of its 2010-2011 repertory season.

Under Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s imaginative direction, this Measure For Measure proves one of Shakespeare’s most accessible, and even gripping, works. It’s even surprisingly funny at times, perhaps an odd thing to say about a play categorized as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but Measure For Measure is far more dramatic than comedic, its happy ending about the only thing distinguishing it from one of the Bard’s tragedies, since even those have their obligatory scenes of comic relief.

The government official in question is Angelo (Elliott), chosen to assume the reins of the capital by its leader, Duke Vincentio, who has grown tired of ruling his ever more dissolute city. Angelo soon decides that the best way to rid the land of sin is to make an example of one particular sinner, in this case Claudio (William Patrick Riley), an otherwise virtuous man who has unfortunately gotten his fiancée Juliet (Courtney Kocak) pregnant, making him guilty of “licentiousness.” The virgin made to chose between her brother’s death or the loss of her own virtue is Isabella (Karron Graves), a young novitiate about to take her religious vows. Isabella refuses Angelo’s deal, thereby sealing her brother’s fate.

Fortunately for the comely nun-to-be, Vincentio has stuck around in the capital, disguised as an itinerant friar, the better to keep tabs on Angelo’s leadership. The clever Duke comes up with an ingenious plan that can save both Claudio’s life and Isabella’s virtue—if all goes as planned.

Measure For Measure’s lighter moments come courtesy of a subplot involving Claudio’s friend Lucio (Stephen Rockwell), whose attempts to curry favor with both the Duke and the friar (unaware that they are one and the same) earn considerable laughter, as do the malaprop-prone Elbow (Michael Faulkner) and hip-hip-hipster Pompey (understudy Jeremy Rabb). There’s also a bawdy madam known as Mistress Overdone (Jill Hill) and a condemned killer named Bernardine (Thomas Moses), so cheeky that he refuses to be put to death while still hung-over.

The cast, performing on scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s dramatically stark set (shades of fascist Rome or Cold War Eastern Europe) and in Julie Keen’s eclectic blend of contemporary costumes (from three-piece gray suits to slutty whorewear), make Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English sound almost 21st Century-current.

Measure For Measure leading players Dean and Graves do truly stellar work, illustrating one of the factors which make A Noise Within productions so rewarding, an ANW Resident Artist performing opposite an actor making his/her ANW debut. A superb Dean makes the Duke and the supposed Friar such distinctive characters that it is no wonder that no one recognizes the latter as being the “away-from-town” ruler. New to L.A. audiences, Graves combines passion, purity, and fire as Isabella, and is well matched with the excellent (and equally fresh) Riley as her condemned brother. Resident Artist Elliott is terrific as always, and in Measure For Measure that means terrifically creepy as a lust-possessed “enemy” of lust. Other Resident Artists doing their accustomed splendid work are Hill, a blousy delight as Mistress Overdone, doubling unrecognizably as the decades younger Mariana; a memorable Rockwell as the amusingly smarmy Lucio; and Mitchell Edmonds and Steve Weingartner, standouts as Escalus and Pompey.

There’s not a weak link in the entire supporting cast, which also includes Peter Larney (Abhorson, 1st Gentleman), Matt Shepherd (Froth, Aide, Prisoner, 2nd Gentleman, Police), and Ariana Hodes (Francisca, Brothel Girl), as well as Sarah Armstrong, Elizabeth Fabie, Taylor Jackson Ross, Kurt Quinn, Lindsay Styler, and Elizabeth Zerebko as various aides, messengers, and others.

In addition to Gifford’s and Keen’s outstanding design work, there’s Elizabeth Harper’s equally striking lighting design and Doug Newell and Zipline Sound’s pulsating sound design and original compositions. Hala Abdul-Baki is assistant director, Csilla Balough and Julius Bronola costume assistants, Nicolas Gregory lighting intern, Kate Barrett stage manager, and Taylor Jackson Ross assistant stage manager. Also deserving of mention are Alexandra Dunn (assistant scenic desing/properties), Monica Lisa Sabedra (wig, hair, and makeup design), Rebecca Baillie (production manager), Adam Lillibridge (technical director), Ronnie J. Clark (master electrician), and Johnny LeBlanc (scenic artist). A song was written for Measure For Measure by Maggie Baird.

If ever there was a Shakespeare play for those not normally fond of the Bard, it’s Measure For Measure. Refreshingly uncomplicated of plot, surprisingly accessible despite its Elizabethan English, relatively brief (at two hours and twenty minutes, including intermission), and designed here for a particularly contemporary look and feel, this is one Measure For Measure that even those who normally avoid Shakespeare may find themselves applauding as enthusiastically as dyed-in-the-wool fans.

A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale.
–Steven Stanley
October 13, 2010
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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