“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” Those five words, first spoken on a 1604 stage in the course of a sexual assault, cut across the centuries with an urgency that’s brought renewed appreciation for William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” Santa Barbara’s Ensemble Theatre Company’s high-tech, modern dress production proves chillingly effective in making that connection.
Director Jonathan Fox pulls no punches with the play’s depiction of corruption and abuse of power, personified in puritanical judge Angelo (Richard Baird) when would-be nun Isabella (Lily Gibson) pleads for mercy on behalf of her condemned brother (Trevor Peterson). Angelo’s quid pro quo offer is brutally direct: her brother’s life in exchange for her sexual favors. Laughing off her threat to expose him, Angelo revels in the immunity his gender and higher social stature afford him. Who indeed would take her word over his?
These well-cast opponents heighten the stakes in the unfolding collision of power, sex, religion and morality. Baird shows us not only Angelo’s depravity but also the tortured path of repressed sexuality and rationalization that leads him to it.
Gibson’s Isabella is a complex mix of sharp-witted eloquence, lofty ethics and naive vulnerability that makes her victimization all the more horrific.
All this darkness occurs in a play considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies — albeit mainly by virtue of its villain’s ironic comeuppance and the restoration of normal order. Even in its closing moments, Isabella’s silent bewilderment exposes the hollow ambiguity of the supposedly happy ending.
Still, the Angelo-Isabella drama is only one of the play’s three narrative threads, and in other respects the verdict on this “Measure” is more measured.
The bawdy comic story lines are well-performed, most prominently by Brian Ibsen as the pompous lecher, Lucio. Nevertheless, the humorous antics seem muted when playing out against Jeffrey Behm’s sharp-angled minimalist set with its backdrop of ominous surveillance monitors and constantly churning fog machines — more mist-ifying than atmospheric. The production’s tone skews so relentlessly dark that the opposing worlds never come together in the finale.
In the third subplot, the ruling Duke, disguised as a simple friar, engineers the deceptions that resolve matters. Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha struggles with the verse and tries too hard to make the Duke a nice guy. Given some of the unnecessarily cruel tactics the character employs, a more fitting stance would be godlike detachment while making sport of the mortal follies that the play doles out in generous measure.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 20. Also 4 p.m. this Saturday
Info: (805) 965-5400 or etcsb.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
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