The space is very humbling. Built in 1847, the Irish Heritage and Cultural Center was originally a church. This month the stained glass and massive arched ceiling play host to Aura Theatre Collective’s staging of Measure for Measure. A man in a position of authority assaults a woman in no position to tell anyone about it in a story that is sadly as relevant now as it’s ever been.
Timothy J. Barnes summons a towering sense of poise and stature to the role of Angelo. He has been left in a position of authority by the Duke of Vienna. Seated in this authority, the immovable granite of Angelo’s resolve falls upon the shoulders of a young man named Claudio who is charged with the crime of fornication for which he is to be put to death. Jarrod Langwinski clutches a weary fear about him as Claudio. In Langqinski’s hands, Claudio’s frustrations are kept at bay, allowing him to explore a subtle interplay of emotions that would be lost in a more powerful show of desperation.
Informed of Claudio’s predicament, his sister Isabella goes forth to Angelo in order to plead for her brother’s life. Laker Thrasher is fiercely forthright as Isabella: a novice nun who is given the opportunity to save the life of her brother if she will allow Angelo to take her virginity. Thrasher casts an admirably impressive sense of altruism into the soul of Isobel. Far from being a simple, pitiful victim, Thrasher’s performance casts Isabella’s victimhood against the intellectual resilience and emotional fortitude of someone who would have done much better in a better era for women.
Thrasher’s intensity in the role of Isabella is matched by the dramatic gravity of Kira Renkas’ performance as Marianna. Angelo had abandoned his betrothal to Marianna when her dowry was lost to sea. The fact that Marianna would want to be with him anyway is a bit of a problem. Doesn’t she realize that this guy’s a monster? Renkas’ magnetic stage presence imbues Marianna with a kind of power that suggests an inner authority that could easily keep Angelo in check. In silent authority, Renkas wields a kind of influence onstage that Angelo could only aspire to. Marianna is in a position well below Angelo, but under the influence of Renkas, she’s got a righteousness about her that well outweighs his petty cruelty.
Randall T. Anderson is infinitely likable onstage. Anderson’s charm is granted to Duke Vincentio. The Duke has announced his intention to leave the city. He remains in disguise as a friar in the interest of viewing life in the city outside the confines of authority. Shakespeare casts the Duke in a heroic light. Anderson takes to the heroism with an adroit grasp of the character’s cunning. Director Jaimelyn Gray cleverly subverts this, playing with expectations in a staging of Shakespeare’s classic that allows the women in the cast their own kind of authority without compromising the basic structure of the script in any fundamental way. A good portion of this comes from a very talented cast, but Gray has juggled things quite well in a very compelling production.
The rest of the cast includes some great talent. Tom Marks has a very shrewd and focussed energy as Escalus. Logan Milway balances drama with a slicingly clever sense of humor as Claudio’s friend Lucio. Liz Ehrler has a commanding presence onstage as Mistress Overdone--manager of a Viennese brothel. Ehrler opens the show as Overdone in a burlesque act that is promptly shut down by authorities. It’s a fun bit of staging that sets the tone for the rest of the show. It can feel kind of weird seeing Shakespeare in a church. Opening the show with burlesque cuts some of the strange formality that can overpower in a 19th century church.
Aura Theatre Collective’s production of Measure for Measure runs through Nov. 24th at the Irish Heritage and Cultural Center on 2133 W. Wisconsin Avenue. For more information, visit Aura Theatre online.