warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Review: "Measure For Measure" At A Noise Within

Jason Kehe |
September 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. PDT

Senior Arts Editor

Karron Graves as Isabella and Geoff Elliott as Angelo (Photos courtesy of John Berry, Architects)
Karron Graves as Isabella and Geoff Elliott as Angelo (Photos courtesy of John Berry, Architects)
Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is many things — probably too many things — but we can agree that “effortless” isn’t one of them.

But leave it to A Noise Within to prove that wrong. In a miracle of acting and staging, this small but pioneering theater company has done the impossible — made “Measure” (directed by ANW co-founders and co-artistic directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott) look truly effortless indeed.

Much of the credit has got to go to two standout performers — Karron Graves as the novice nun Isabella and Elliott as Angelo.

Isabella easily ranks among the trickiest roles in Shakespeare, but you would never know it with Graves in the part. On the page, Isabella can get intolerable, but Graves is somehow able to rein in Isabella’s wild blend of grace, tenacity and wit to create a startlingly believable portrait of a principled woman in crisis.

The action of the play is put in motion when the Duke (Robertson Dean) suddenly absents himself from the affairs of Vienna, leaving Angelo in charge. Angelo, a cold-blooded puritan bent on unsexing Vienna, orders the closure of suburban brothels and reinstates a forgotten law — death to fornicators. When it comes out that Claudio (William Patrick Riley) has acted against the draconian measure — his fiancée turns up with child — Angelo takes the opportunity to make an example of Claudio by sentencing him to death.

That’s when Isabella, Claudio’s sister and a postulant nun, is called on to plead with Angelo for her brother’s absolution. Angelo, at first unfazed, soon finds himself sexually drawn to Isabella. So he makes her an offer: trade her virginity for Claudio’s freedom. 

The rest of the play unfolds with one delicious scandal after another — betrayals, bed tricks, big reveals. Of course, this being Shakespeare, at least one character shows up disguised as a friar. In this case, it’s the Duke, who never actually left Vienna in the first place.

Normally, the Duke is the play. This is his great experiment, the players merely pawns. Nothing against Dean, whose Duke is a pleasant blend of comedy and gravitas, but this play belongs to Graves and Elliott. Their scenes together are mesmerizing — both give as much as they take.

But there really isn’t a weak link in the cast — Jill Hill overdoes her Mistress Overdone to great effect, Stephen Rockwell finds in Lucio both high wit and low comedy, and Thomas Moses makes the most of Barnardine’s few exquisite lines.

The only real mystery is the vaguely Eastern European setting, which provides interesting musical opportunities during scene transitions but not much else. Modernization should have a purpose; what is it here? But at least it’s consistent with Elizabeth Harper’s harsh red lighting and Doug Newell’s snake-charmer sound design.

The ending of “Measure” remains one of Shakespeare’s most maddeningly ambiguous. Isabella, and the actress playing her, must make a terrific decision. Alas, nothing is certain at the end of this production — Graves keeps us guessing — but maybe that’s as it should be.

What is certain about this production — a winning start to ANW’s 2010-2011 season — is that it’s a triumph of acting. Seek it out, or miss an opportunity to experience Shakespeare as it should be done.

To reach Senior Arts Editor Jason Kehe, click here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.