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Review: Repercussion gets the Measure of the Bard’s problem play

Delhi News-Record 2019-07-18 21:49:52

Matthew Kabwe as the disguised duke with novice nun Isabella, played by Samantha Bitonti, in Repercussion Theatre's Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Measure For Measure. Photo credit: Valerie Baron Valerie Baron / Courtesy of Studio Baron Photo

Given that it’s one of Shakespeare’s darkest “problem plays”, the task of producing Measure for Measure as a sunny outdoor treat can’t have been a walk in the park. It’s heartening to report, then, that this is Repercussion Theatre’s strongest, most consistently entertaining show since Amanda Kellock took over as artistic director five years ago.

This is partly a case of right time right play. One of the most powerful moments of the evening, when I caught this performance at Westmount Park on Tuesday, was when Angelo, the sanctimonious morality enforcer and slimy sexual harasser, sneered, “Who will believe thee, Isabella?”

The sound that emerged from the collective throats of the audience was something like a cry of disgust mixed with an exhilaration that this 400-year-old play so resoundingly hits the bullseye of our own cultural moment.

But it’s not just the white-hot topicality that makes a success of this edition of Shakespeare-in-the-Park, which is touring around Montreal through Aug. 11. Kellock and her cast get the measure of its notoriously precarious balance between broad, bawdy comedy and murky seriousness. Above all, its trio of lead performers bring a lucidity and passion to it that overcome the challenges.

Relative newcomer Samantha Bitonti is very good as Isabella, the novice nun whose vocation is rudely interrupted after her brother Claudio is swept up in the Duke of Vienna’s lethal policy of zero tolerance towards sexual impropriety. Bitonti convincingly conveys the idea of religious fervour as a humanizing influence rather than a fundamentalist disorder. Angelo’s attempt to make her choose between her vow of chastity and her brother’s salvation seems all the more horrifying. 

Alex Goldrich brings a ramrod severity to Angelo, playing him as a dour bureaucrat shocked to find himself compelled by Isabella’s desperation as she pleads for her brother’s life.

Angelo’s attempts at sexual extortion are monstrous, but Goldrich presents a broader interpretation. It’s an assured, surprisingly moving performance, which, on the night I caught it, even managed to rise above a recurring problem with his radio mic. As flustered techies fluttered around him, Goldrich stayed in character so that his Angelo looked all the more like a plaster saint trying to remain dignified as his rottenness is revealed.

Matthew Kabwe brings a wonderful double sense of august authority and shifty mischief as he plays the duke dispensing his terrible decrees, then scuttling into the shadows to observe how his knuckle-headed experiment works out. He may be one of Shakespeare’s clumsiest (and perhaps most sadistic) “heroes,” but Kabwe manages to make him likeable and compelling, bringing a crisp clarity to every line.

The evening isn’t without its flaws, although it’s hardly Repercussion’s fault that Shakespeare created so many plot lines to untangle that the last stretch really stretches. And an early scene between the condemned Claudio and his friend Lucio, played respectively by Trevor Barrette and Anton May, looks ominously like we’ve run aground into mushy imprecision. But when the fear of death grips Claudio, Barrette’s performance really takes off. May, for his part, grows into spectacularly sassy, consistently funny form as the mouthy scandalmonger.

There’s also terrific comic playing from the 10-strong cast, including Colin Heath as the brothel-creeping Pompey. I particularly enjoyed his louche reply to Nadia Verrucci’s disapproving Escalus when she asks if his pimping is a lawful trade. “If the law would allow it,” he twinkles. It’s one of many surprising belly laughs in this darkly troubling play. And make sure you stick around for the end when the cast deliver a spirited rendition of a certain pop classic famous for, aptly enough, its distinctly religio-erotic overtones.

Repercussion Theatre’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park presentation of Measure for Measure is touring various outdoor locations through Aug. 11. Performances are free, though voluntary donations are taken during the interval. Call 514-931-2644 or visit repercussiontheatre.com.