I'm not going to name any names, but Shakespeare in the Twin Cities can be deadly dull to watch. Not because the acting or direction or production are necessarily bad, but because those involved don't seem interested in getting to the heart of the matter. The play becomes mainly an exercise: actors focused on accents and directors pushing a concept until it breaks, leaving us with handsomely crafted work that has all the emotional depth of an episode of The Young and the Restless.
So thank heavens for Ten Thousand Things, which once again digs into the heart of the Bard for its production of Measure for Measure. There are no Shakespearean accents, no giant video screens to distract us. There are just eight actors on a nearly bare stage bringing the story to full, passionate life.
That's an important factor, as in the wrong hands Measure for Measure can be a real slog, led by a disturbing Duke and a deus ex machina that could reveal herself at any time in the play's back half to end the madness onstage. It's a play that straddles, somewhat unsuccessfully, the line between tragedy and comedy. The play has too much humor, and too happy an ending, to fit in the former camp, but the sense of danger that permeates it from the beginning makes it hard to completely enjoy it as the latter.
Measure for MeasureOpen Book1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis800.838.3006; through October 21 (October 18 at Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis)
In Vienna, the Duke (a cross-cast Suzanne Warmanen) makes plans to leave town for a while, giving the keys to the city to Angelo (Luverne Seifert), a cold man who lives by the letter of the law. One of those laws is that sex out of wedlock is punishable by death, which ensnares young Claudio (Nathan Barlow), as he and his partner, Julietta (India Gurley), have not gone through the formal marriage process due to a lack of funds.
No matter, it's off to the block for Claudio. Plots are quickly hatched, including getting his sister, Isabella (Sonja Parks), out of the convent to plead for his freedom. It all falls on deaf ears, until a kindly priest enters the fray and works to ensnare Angelo in his own net. That priest, as you might guess, is actually the Duke in disguise, and from this point on she is in control of the situation — even if she is willing to let our heroes twist in the wind for a bit.
Regardless of gender, what the Duke does here is pretty creepy, but Warmanen does a terrific job of riding the character's shifting motivations. As the leader of the city, the Duke wants to check on the quality of its leadership — and, to reference another Shakespeare play, of its mercy. She finds it lacking.
That doesn't make life any easier for poor Claudio, Julietta, or Isabella. Parks especially brings remarkable intensity to her performance. At times it feels as if she is about to burst into flames as she tries to speak emotionally and logically against Angelo's decree, and then with abject horror as the black-clad judge offers her a choice worse than death.
Seifert's Angelo is as dark-hearted as his black clothes and stiff manner, but the actor doesn't have to stay in that character for the whole play. He is double cast as Pompey, a jolly, dimwitted barkeep who gets caught in another one of Angelo's decrees — that the brothels be closed and torn to the ground.
It is important to remember that Measure for Measure, at some level, is a comedy. Along with Seifert, Zach Curtis gets to have the most fun as Froth, another inhabitant of the lower classes, whose big mouth gets him in trouble with the Duke, and as Barnardine, a longtime inmate who is too drunk to meet his scheduled execution. Barlow also has fun as Elbow, a strutting policeman who relishes every chance to showcase his deductive skills.
The minimal sets and costumes help provide clarity without getting in the way of the actors, as does Peter Vitale's clanging, minimal music. The actors take advantage of the presentation and of one another to produce a rare night of illuminating, thrilling, and, above all, engaging theater.