Reading Shakespeare can be daunting: The first few pages can seem about as decipherable as Chinese. Even a devotee of the Bard’s works will admit a readjusting of sorts must take place before meaning begins to sink in.
Fortunately, plays are meant to be seen, not read, and the body can translate any language. Still, there are actors who’ve pledged their lives to studying and performing Shakespearean works, and surely they would declare there’s little possibility of ever exhausting one’s knowledge of his plays. That’s why Walden Theatre’s Young American Shakespeare Festival is impressive. Tackling a richly textured play like “Measure for Measure” is quite a task for any theatrical company, never mind such a youthful one.
Set in a gritty Vienna, the play begins as Duke Vincentio (Adam Brown), weary of his city, decides to leave its government under the watch of deputy Angelo (Josh Jaeger). Angelo resolves to revive vigorous laws against those who have sex outside of marriage, and Claudio (Mitchell Martin), a young man who’s gotten his fiancée pregnant, is made an example of by being sentenced to death. His sister, Isabella (Sarah Jackson), pleads for his life, but Angelo tells her the only way he’ll spare Claudio’s life is if she, a virgin on the verge of entering a convent, will sleep with him.
The Duke, who has stayed in the city disguised as a friar, convinces Isabella to pretend to accept the deal. Instead, she is secretly replaced by Mariana (Rachel Knouse), once betrothed to but deserted by Angelo. Angelo then betrays Isabella by attempting to carry out Claudio’s execution, but the Duke reveals himself and issues a string of marriages.
There are several actors who demonstrate a strong grasp of the language, essential if one hopes to render it comprehensible to the audience. Adam Brown, Sarah Jackson and Margaret Streeter (Mistress Overdone) do fine work, and, although somewhat stiff physically, Rachel Knouse takes her time with her lines, exhibiting a terrific command of them. Josh Jaeger owns the scene in which he grapples with his desire for Isabella. With a little encouragement, Danny Koenig (Lucio) will soon be turning in terrifically comedic performances.
It’s difficult to turn too critical an eye on this production due to the fact that these actors are not seasoned professionals, just teens who dedicate their time and energy to a burgeoning passion for theater. This is a play in which a new layer is unearthed upon each reading. Revealing the nuances of the complicated relationships and situations therein is a challenge for any actor, and Walden Theatre should be applauded for mounting a production that engages. I’d like to see the same actors perform “Measure for Measure” in 10 years — there’s much promise here, and with the maturation of their talents and the honing of their crafts, I suspect I’d see a powerful rendition.