An unusual — and lively — ‘Taking Measure’ at The Z in Virginia Beach (2024)

Bardly speaking, there are two ways for Shakespeare lovers to honor their main man. A director can simply use the glorious language of the plays, sometimes updating the era via modern set and costumes, but always preserving that precious poetic blank verse (and occasional rhyming couplets).

The second way is to update the play in every sense, tossing the original language but retaining Shakespearean plot ideas and themes applied to new contexts. That turns “Romeo and Juliet” into “West Side Story” or “Hamlet” into Broadway’s “Fat Ham” or even, at a stretch, “The Lion King.” But Chris Hanna — Old Dominion University professor and director of theater, artistic director emeritus of the Virginia Stage Company — decides to do both in his lively take, “Taking Measure: Inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure,'” at Zeiders American Dream Theater through March 18.

What? How?

Hanna’s unusual approach (directed by Sarah Norris) retains chunks of Shakespeare’s language not only from “Measure for Measure” but from others of the most famous plays. Actors, especially at the start, simply stand and recite familiar quotations, “greatest hits” style, accompanied by a ghostly, echoing sound effect (courtesy of Steven Allegretto, local sound design wizard).

The device seems intended to remind us of Shakespeare’s haunting verbal immortality, his place in culture’s collective unconscious. Hanna includes, additionally, whole short scenes from the original “Measure for Measure,” the Bard’s last comedy (about 1604) and one of several designated by scholars as a problem play, i.e., a troubling one with lots to argue about. Hanna simply sets such recitations and scenes mostly in a classroom, where it’s natural for students to cite and recite the Elizabethan original, but to also discuss it in their current (excessively raunchy) 2023 vernacular.

There’s a method in Hanna’s madness and vice versa, but first a reminder of the original play’s plot. It’s the one about the Duke of Vienna — fondly known as that “old fantastical Duke of Dark Corners” — who leaves in charge his No. 1, Angelo (depicted, in the classroom play within a play, by Andrew Bryce), and pretends to leave town. He actually just dons a friar’s disguise to spy on his underling and fool everybody. Angelo, now the de facto leader, is a right-wing hard-liner, determined to improve morals in Vienna by cracking down on lechery (that is, living). He soon arrests young Claudio (recited in Shakespeare class by Bryce) for impregnating his perfectly willing fiancée before marriage. He sentences Claudio to death and his straight-laced sister, nun-to-be Isabella (Destiny Deater recites her part in class) comes running to try to save her errant brother. Angelo is forthwith smitten with Isabella and offers to exchange her brother’s life for her virginity(!). Hypocrisy, thy name is … Angelo (or any number of right-wing religious leaders caught with their pants down).

Isabella has a problem: Save her brother or her virtue. But that’s the original play’s dilemma. Note: One of the neater tricks in the production is the way the actors stumble and stammer their lines like students but then quietly turn into the “real” characters, speaking “trippingly on the tongue” (i.e., with comprehension and skill). But now to the transmogrified portion of Hanna’s plot.

An unusual — and lively — ‘Taking Measure’ at The Z in Virginia Beach (1)

Hanna’s real focus is on an Isabella-like heroine Kim (the excellent Felicia Fields). A young Black student in the Shakespeare class, Kim is a military brat who fell in love with Shakespeare thanks to a gifted high school teacher named Miss Dash (played by the also-excellent Ann Heywood). Dash represents good teaching and counseling in the play. But most of the play is set in Kim’s later college world where she has a duo of close, beloved friends: nonbinary confidante Ashe (Mahala Lepsch) and Nick (Peyton Creasey), a struggling lower-class student who, halfway out of ignorance, plagiarizes a paper in the trio’s college Shakespeare class.

Nick is like a brother to Kim. No, wait. He functionally is Kim’s brother in our new “Measure”- modified plot. His plagiarism has made him a foolish, misguided modern-day Claudio now threatened not by death but by expulsion (and perhaps the financial death for his family that such an expulsion might mean).

That makes the figure in charge of his fate (the Shakespeare professor who has discovered the plagiarism) our modern-day Angelo. This too-cool-for-school professor (expertly done by Julian Stetkevych, one of several Equity actors in the production), initially worshipped by Kim and her classmates, is of the professor-as-pal school of pedagogy. He insists on being called by his first name, Gil, and never being called “Sir.”

Kim insists on becoming his advisee, and we immediately see danger signs. He likes to give hugs. Oh, he asks first, a nod to Title IX propriety, but he likes a hug. And a bit later, he likes a kiss. Kim only slowly sees the danger. She confides in the teaching assistant Diana (Ash O’Leary), an up-until-then comic figure prone to “oversharing” about her bodily functions. Diana knows she must report the kiss to her university’s Title IX officer (Ashlee Rey, having just, somehow appropriately, played justice-seeker Ida B. Wells at Little Theatre of Norfolk). Kim lies in her first encounter with the interrogator. By now Nick’s threatening plagiarism charge has been dropped. Kim assumes it is she who has saved her friend until she finds out otherwise. …

Hanna’s further problematizing of his already problematic source is a tribute to his (and Shakespeare’s) writing skills. Already the author of several plays including “Line in the Sand,” (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama), “King Lear: The Storm at Home” and “The New Pink,” Hanna has “Taking Measure” address an array of problems, some comparatively new: racism, sexism, classism, anti-LGBTQ animus and more. Hanna’s ear for contemporary Student Speak occasionally seems a bit off, and there’s probably no real need for a weed scene. We can also probably do without the student trio’s howling like wolves when they want to party hearty.

But these are minor quibbles about an overall striking play, a possible addition to canonical others on the theme of student sexual abuse such as David Mamet’s “Oleanna” (1992).

Hypocrisy may look hot and hip, but listen to the Bard: “O, what may man within him hide,/ Though angel on the outward side.” Listen, too, to Isabella’s words about what women really want, likewise in the old “Measure for Measure”: “Justice, justice, justice, justice.” When the Bard repeats himself, the world had best listen up.

Page Laws is dean emerita of the Nusbaum Honors College at Norfolk State University. prlaws@aya.yale.edu

___

IF YOU GO

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays through March 18

Where: Zeiders American Dream Theater, 4509 Commerce St., Virginia Beach

Tickets: $30 with discount options available

Details: 757-499-0317, thez.org

An unusual — and lively — ‘Taking Measure’ at The Z in Virginia Beach (2024)

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