WEIGHING IN ON MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Remember the headlines? They keep coming. Cover-ups to protect the guilty – and the church’s reputation. Footsies in a bathroom stall. The affair with the wife of a senior staffer. Tweeting body parts. Dirty showers and iconic statues ditched. When it happens, we find ourselves dazed and confused, but glued to the boob tube, hypnotized by the spectacle of one bastion of society after another falling from grace.

Or how about the “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon? And who bothers anymore with the brown bag to conceal a dubious curiosity?

When the subject is sex, there appears to be no limit to man’s perversity and interest in same.

Hypocrisy, debauchery and venality have become oh so been-there, done-that.

In that context, small wonder holiness and virginity become a turn on.

Sex, power and morality – how to weigh them out in appropriate proportions is the question –  all come into play in “Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare’s late, troubling comedy, which historians contend embodies the playwright’s pessimistic, even poisonous view of humanity.

Local celebrity Jeb Berrier (the star of “Bag It” and a Shakespearian actor) directed the Telluride Theatre production, which we saw Monday night. His mixed level cast, which included never – (or rarely) – evers to more seasoned and adept thespians (regulars from the former Telluride Repertory Theatre and Sasha Cucinniello’s awesome progeny from SquidShow), embraced the play’s plot twists with all the enthusiasm of a kid finding his first lucky penny on the sidewalk. The results were charming, and at times very, very funny. And also quite relevant to today’s world of salacious appetites unbuttoned.

How far is far enough? And what is a just outcome?

Telluride Theatre’s “Measure for Measure” is a high-spirited romp, but despite the Monty Pythonesque bawdiness, its dark heart pumps loud and clear.

By way of review, the plot centers on Duke Vincentio of Vienna, concerned that his people have thrown off restraint and sunk too deep into, ahem, liberty, leaves the city in the hands of Angelo, who may or may not be his alter ego. Angelo is a man notorious for his strict and inhuman discipline, whose “blood is snow-broth; one who never feels.”

Only he does.

To send an unmistakable message that fornication will no longer be tolerated, Angelo sentences the young Claudio to death for dallying with his fiancee Juliet a little shy of the alter. But Angelo, as it turns out, has a sordid past, and a libido that erupts into an internal conflagration when the chaste and lovely Isabella appears to plead her brother’s cause. Driven by lust, Angelo insists Isabella pay her brother’s life with her body. Meanwhile, in the shadows, the Duke, in disguise as Friar Lodowick, schemes to restore justice and harmony.

As the Duke, Eliot Muckerman not only brings humanity to a role that could easily be unsympathetic – I mean’s here’s a captain who’s abandoning sinking ship – he acts as a true head of state, holding the play’s action together every time he appears on stage, handling the nuanced language with clarity and conviction. Sasha Cucciniello, Telluride Theatre’s artistic director, dedicated the evening to justice and Eliot’s mom, Judge Sharon Shuteran, whose untimely death was a loss to the entire community. She would have been proud.

Charlotte Delpit makes righteousness sexy, portraying the virginal Catholic novice as a whole lot more than a mere innocent. In rapid-fire exchanges with Angelo, her Isabella proved to be intellectually and spiritually equal to her foe’s barbs. The apple-cheeked beauty was perfectly cast.

Buff Hooper, a versatile, convincing and confident actor, somehow manages to elicit a vulnerable humanity from an otherwise smarmy villain and bully, who reveals himself when trying to intimidate Isabella with the line: “My false overweighs your truth.” Holy cow, does that line ring all too true.

The comedy is handled well by the twin towers of Ashley Boling as the impish and ribald tapster Pompey, who survives in a chaotic world by knowing how to roll with the punches, and Layna Fisher as the cynical weasel Lucio, who thinks nothing of dissing the Duke to his face when the nobleman is disguised as a friar. Where Buff eschews the twirling mustache thing, Layna embraces it with aplomb. As the hapless policeman Elbow, Jonas Fahnestock is also a hoot, and so is Ellen Metrick in her cameo as the permanently intoxicated Bernardine.

Hats off to all the newcomers, including Keith Hill, who I am convinced can do anything he puts his mind to. He delivers a moving and confident performance as the anguished Claudio. The kids are wonderful too – violinists Camille and Juliet Denman, Zachery Davis, Luke Marshall, Simon Perkovich and Mariposa Metrick – as is everyone in the supporting cast. One of the best moments, brief but beautifully executed, was the dance scene featuring Mistress Overdone (Dahlia Mertens who sucks the limelight whenever she is on stage) and her trilogy of sensuous “whores.”

Kudos to Jeb’s production crew: Marc Froelich, lighting design, Deb Gesmundo, stage manager, Buff Hooper, set design, Valerie Madonia, choreographer, Meredith Muller, makeup, Melissa Sumpter, costume design, and Karen Clarke, costumes/stage assistant.

Performances run through the week into the following weekend: Wednesday, July 25, Thursday, July 26, Friday, July 27, with the closing show on July 28. There is a special party for patrons on Thursday, July 26, including a wine, beer and cocktail reception at 7 p.m. Show time is 8 p.m.

Tickets, $12 and $50 for patron, available at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 970-369-5675. Reserve your place soon. Monday night was nearly sold out.

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