A bunch of shows opened over the last couple of weekends, so here's a roundup of thoughts, impressions and opinions on two that couldn't be more unlike each other: Ohio Shakespeare Festival's dark comedy "Measure for Measure" and Western Reserve Playhouse's very, very dark and twisted musical "Heathers."
First, seeing Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" was a novelty in itself, as it's rarely produced in this region. I can honestly say I have never seen this Shakespearean work staged in the nearly 20 years I've been covering theater.
Kudos to director Terry Burgler and Ohio Shakespeare Festival for producing this lesser-known play, which has a lot to say about hypocrisy, morality and sexual politics. In this #MeToo era, it's timely to see a show about a man abusing his power in an attempt to sexually blackmail an innocent woman.
One reason "Measure for Measure" isn't oft produced is that it's one of Shakespeare's "problem comedies." It's certainly not a romp in which characters try to keep lovers apart from each other. Instead, two couples are actually forced to marry each other.
One of the biggest plot points that makes this a problem comedy is that the key character Angelo, played by Geoff Knox, treats a virtuous woman poorly but his repentance is hollow, expressed only when he realizes he's about to be exposed. The all-knowing Duke gives him a good scare but an ultimately light punishment: to marry his own fiancee.
In this story, which takes place in Vienna, deputy Angelo is filling in for the Duke (a regendered role played by an excellent Holly Humes) during his absence and he decides to enforce the law like a despot. That includes condemning young Claudio to death for a legal loophole that asserts he wasn't actually married to wife Juliet (Natalie Steen) when she became pregnant.
In this comedy, the outwardly virtuous man only behaves when someone else steps in to restrain his uncontrollable lust. Knox does a good job of showing the audience how even he is shocked at his sudden, all-consuming temptation when he meets the virtuous Isabella (Natalie Green), a novice who plans to become a nun. He wants what he can't have, so he tells our heroine that the only way he'll spare her brother Claudio's (Ryan Zarecki) life is if Isabella gives him her virginity.
Humes' Duke is the juggernaut of the whole play, both in her "princely" gown and when she's disguised as a friar. Her character goes through elaborate and somewhat convoluted manipulations to bring Angelo to justice. That includes a kinky plot to actually substitute one woman in bed for another, in the dark, in an effort to undo the evil Angelo.
Let's face it: "Measure for Measure" is a pretty dirty sex story. Add to the tale the local madam, Mistress Overdone (Madelyn Hayes) and the crazy, clownish Pompey Bum (James Rankin), a pimp who has plenty of bawdy jokes to share.
Green does a good job with her virtuous characterization in this obviously sexist story. And despite the fact that the disguised Duke goes through crazy machinations to secure a dowry for one character to "buy you a better husband," regendering the Duke as a woman helps level the sexist playing field in this story. And only a few words needed to be dropped from the play to get around an implied betrothal at the end of this story, which director Burgler handles so subtly, viewers won't miss a beat.
The play continues through Sunday. See www.ohioshakespearefestival.com.
On to the crazy fun.
Director Kevin Kelly has cast a stellar group of leads in the very dark cult comedy "Heathers" the musical, based on the 1988 movie starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. He's loaded the cast with Kent State University musical theater talent, with the fabulous Kirstin Henry as Veronica Sawyer and Brian Hirsch as Jason "J.D." Dean.
The sold-out, rowdy crowd went nuts Sunday with this pair's powerful duets, and justly so. Henry can belt like there's no tomorrow and Hirsch makes seamless switches between singing sweetly and raging through song in his characterization of a troubled outsider with violent compulsions.
This is either a good time or a bad time to stage a black comedy with a story that includes gun violence, depending on how you look at it in light of the nation's current gun violence epidemic. Kelly has said the extreme story gets young people talking about the issue of violence.
The musical, is very funny, thoroughly poking fun at bullying teens and the whole popularity scenario through plenty of stupidly witty lyrics. In this story, the outcasts work to get even with the popular kids through foul play. One plot point including gunfire was painful to behold, in light of the mass shootings in Texas and Dayton over the weekend. The show, which also deals with suicide and sexual content, is for mature audiences only.
The three Heathers — KSU's Megan Polk as Heather Chandler, KSU's Abby Stoffel as Heather McNamara and Emily Shipley as Heather Duke — are perfection with their bitchy act and ultra-tight harmonies. The only drawback is that the cast sings to a track, which skipped several times during one tune, due to unforeseen circumstances regarding a music director.
Final shows are Friday and Saturday. See www.westernreserveplayhouse.org.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.