I suspected that Shakespeare Carolina was in a downward spiral last month when they presented 5 by Tenn at Duke Energy Theater. After managing artistic director Chris O'Neill reminded us that the Tennessee Williams one-acts we were about to see were rarely produced, he and company seemed hellbent for a good portion of the evening on demonstrating why these works were shunned. Even that didn't prepare me for the depths that ShakesCar would reach last week in their modern-dress production of the Bard's Measure for Measure. Problem play indeed!
Truthfully, 25 years of reviewing didn't prepare me for the shock. Nor did my personal involvement in community and professional theatre productions stretching back even further.
The evening began auspiciously enough. M4M isn't the easiest drama to do because all of the major characters stand on shaky moral ground. Duke Vincentio has become convinced that he has ruled Vienna too leniently, so he decides to shift governance to his moralizing deputy Angelo, who will take on the onerous business of enforcing the law more strictly in the duke's absence. But the duke isn't dealing with Angelo from the top of the deck. He doesn't really plan to go on a trip abroad as he professes. Instead, he disguises himself as a friar so he can spy on Angelo and see how Vienna progresses under his reign.
O'Neill set up the moral malaise of Vienna rather nicely, bringing us immediately to the dive where the hapless Claudio will be arrested for not marrying his pregnant girlfriend. Costuming by O'Neill and Aly Perez, especially for the women in this drama, underlined the decadence. You could say they went overboard, for Claudio's sister Isabella, a novice at a nunnery, was dressed in tight black vinyl slacks as she pleaded to Angelo for her brother's life.
No, I wasn't upset by that excess, and in fact, Katie Bearden as Isabella and Justin Younts as Claudio were both exemplary in getting to the heart of the text. What dissatisfied me most were the performances of the leads, David Loehr as Angelo and Brian Willard as Duke Vincentio.
Something was already awry in their first scene, when Vincentio handed over the reins of power. Both Willard and Loehr treated the opening pentameters far too casually, as if they were synchronizing wristwatches instead of conducting a momentous matter of state. With Willard shouldering the bulk of the dialogue, he certainly deserved the bulk of the blame along with O'Neill, obviously facing difficulties of his own as our director in asserting authority.
It didn't get better. When Isabella pleaded for Claudio's life, Loehr dutifully went through the motions of expressing his lust for the attractive supplicant, but he never convinced me that he felt it. Meanwhile, Willard continued on his meek, understated path until we reached the disastrous denouement, when the duke returns to power, tosses off his disguise as the friar, and rights the wrongs done to Claudio, Isabella, and Angelo's scorned fiancée before dealing with the repellently dissipated Lucio, who has slandered both the duke and the friar.
Here Willard touched rock bottom. Last Wednesday, on the second night of the run, Willard meted out justice as Duke Vincentio by reading his lines out of a notebook. The effect was curiously inert as the Duke of Vienna sat behind a table with book in hand or laid it down upon a table, but the deception was working. When Willard returned briefly as the friar, he held a small book at his side, so I'd say he was briefly, tenuously off-book there. But after the duke returned to his judgment seat, he finally rose to confront Lucio holding the notebook in front of him, and everyone in the house could see the print he was plainly reading.
My jaw dropped open. Such a spectacle not only impugns Willard's professionalism but O'Neill's. Playing the lead in a show means taking on leadership responsibilities, so I cannot fathom how a leading player can be onstage with his colleagues and be the only person who isn't off-book. Doing this in rehearsal is bad enough, but in front of a paying audience? In every adult production I've been ever involved in, the director decreed that the cast should be off-book at least two weeks before opening night. Beyond that, the denouement of a drama like Measure for Measure should be one of the first that a competent director makes sure is clean, tight, and stageworthy.
So both O'Neill and Willard were complicit in ruining a lot of good work by a lot of good people. Under that heading, let me include the fine work of George Pond as Lucio, S. Wilson Lee as the bartender Pompey, Chris Freeman as the recalcitrant prisoner Barnadine, and Caryn Crye as Angelo's politic confederate Escalea. Kudos can also be doled out to Adam York's lighting David Hensley's intermittent video imagery.
Looking back at my records, there were photos of Willard in rehearsal dating back at least 10 days before opening night. So yes, I did check whether the actor who had starred previously in ShakesCar's productions of The Tempest and Macbeth might have been a late addition to M4M. There was no evidence to support any mitigating circumstances surrounding Willard's performance as Duke Vincentio. And no excuse.