“Measure for Measure” fuses modern-day direction with classic Shakespeare

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View the gritty, sexual atmosphere of the opening dance number and you’ll know this isn’t your average school play; hear the hip-hop and R&B background music and you’ll sense that this is going to be a cool, modern take on a classic; listen to the actors’ first uttered words and thou shall knowest it is truly Shakespeare.

The theater department opened its first production of the spring semester, “Measure for Measure” last Thursday, March 6. The audience that filled the Little Theatre seemed not fully prepared for the interesting scenes about to be thrust upon them.

Director of the production, Professor Rhonnie Washington, said he wanted to give his own modern spin on the classic Shakespeare play, beginning with the dance number. Washington was glad to get a group of dancers from the dance department because they already had the experience for the choreographed dance.

“I think that that’s going to be one of the highlights of the production,” Washington said. “I’m guessing that people won’t be expecting dancing in ‘Measure for Measure.’”

Curious viewers awaited this first big scene, set in a brothel, or modern-day strip-club, where female and male dancers stripped and teased to their heart’s content. This sequence provided important background for the famous Shakespeare play, which follows Lord Angelo as he leads the city of Vienna while the Duke is away. Angelo hopes to rid Vienna of all brothels and unlawful sexual conduct, but in the process has his own, as well as other characters’, morals questioned.

Claudio (right), played by Abdulrahim Harara, begs his sister, Isabella, played by Celeste Conowitch, to sacrifice her virginity to save his life as Friar Lodowick, played by Alex Skinner listens from afar, during Creative's State's production of Measure For Measure Wednesday, March 5. Photo by Lorisa Salvatin / Xpress Claudio (right), played by Abdulrahim Harara, begs his sister, Isabella, played by Celeste Conowitch, to sacrifice her virginity to save his life as Friar Lodowick, played by Alex Skinner listens from afar, during Creative’s State’s production of Measure For Measure Wednesday, March 5. Photo by Lorisa Salvatin / Xpress

“Measure for Measure” is typically categorized as a comedy, and the cast certainly brought the laughter by delivering sexual innuendos throughout the play. Sex highlighted many of the scenes to provide a look into the play’s questioning of virtue, deceit and temptation.

The cast has been in production for the play since last fall, during which Washington said he was able to bring together a talented cast and crew, including some alumni.

Graduate Drew Wolff, who acts as both Barnardine and Escalus, said he jumped at the chance to act in the play because it was Shakespeare and has enjoyed working with the director’s methods.

“Rhonnie has a saying,” Wolff said. “If he feels that you’re acting entirely on the words in a scene, he’ll say, ‘I smell words,’ because he’s not seeing your intention or your action, but he’s hearing you speak.”

Nicole Helfer is another alumnus who Washington asked to help with the play after viewing her act in and choreograph for last fall’s “A Chorus Line.” Helfer enjoyed receiving guidelines from Washington to help achieve his vision of the “decadence dance,” which is the opening brothel scene that Helfer choreographed.

“(The dancers) all were super into it,” Helfer said. “We kind of had to break the ice because it’s a little silly to be sexual sometimes with people that you don’t really know. We all had to be comfortable with each other because the material and the movement are so evocative.”

Opening night successfully displayed the actors’ talents, which excelled in variety as well as ambiguity. This was the goal of actor Mikkel Simons, who plays Pompey, a clown who works for Mistress Overdone and who is usually played by a male actor. Simons said she is making the character her own and giving it an ambiguous twist.

“I’m not playing it really manly and I’m not playing it extremely feminine,” Simons said. “I’m trying to find that middle road.”

Along with the cast, the play’s scenes evoked a somber, sensual or silly mood. Becky Bogner, a senior and theater major at SF State, as well as the play’s set designer, said she was happy with how the play looked opening night.

“The idea that the director had was able to be captured,” she said. “I think we pulled it off.”

“Measure for Measure” runs March 13-15 at 8 p.m. and March 9 and 16 at 2 p.m. in the Little Theatre. Tickets are $5-$15 and can be purchased at the theatre box office or online.

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