This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
The Bards are back.
Justin Tanner, L.A.'s Bard of Sav-on, is back with an updated version of his play Wife Swappers. Not to be confused with the family-oriented television show with the similar name, Tanner's comedy is about the real thing. His one-act play is about three married couples who, to use the common parlance: swing.
Tanner's play is gleefully vulgar and not at all condescending or sanctimonious. Obviously, he wants the audience to laugh at his characters--but not solely because of their experimental sexual habits. If they weren't wearing robes or talking about bondage gear, you'd swear the play was taking place on Bingo Night at the Rotary Club.
Tanner has an ear for L.A. lingo, and just as he captured the vernacular of the Hollywood small theater crowd recently with his play Oklahomo!, so too does he nail the patter of this subsection of Orange County suburbanites.
Wife Swappers could also be the title of a modernized version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The Bard of Avon's final comedy is also about over-sexed suburbs--albeit the suburbs of Vienna in the 16th century.
One of Shakespeare's so-called "problem; plays," Measure for Measure (currently playing at UCLA Live) is about a city official who declares sex outside of marriage a capital offense--despite the fact that his own sexual history is less than spotless.
Only one wife is actually swapped in this play; but many roles are, as the British company staging this Measure for Measure performs the play as it would have been seen in 1604: with the female parts played by men.
Shakespeare's Globe employed these "original; practices" two years ago when they brought Twelfth Night to UCLA. This time however, the actor playing the lead female role is less successful. Edward Hogg plays Isabella, the virtuous woman lusted after by the villainous deputy. While Hogg does capture the Isabella's elegance and piety, we see little of the spark that drives Angelo to desire her.
Measure for Measure needs this attraction to be believable, and without this chemistry, the play as a whole suffers. However, while this may be the most problematic of the Globe productions I've seen; in some ways, the flaws make the other parts of the staging shine more brightly.
Colin Hurley's Lucio is a riot and Roger Watkins excels in two small roles: Elbow, the constable and Abhorson, the executioner. But, the show belongs to the lead role of the Duke, Vincentio played by the Globe's artistic director, Mark Rylance.
Rylance's Olivia, Prospero and Richard II have all been triumphs, but Vincentio may be his greatest role yet. The way his disguised friar lurks at the edges of the stage is just as captivating as when Rylance stands regally atop the set as the Duke before the play begins.
But his finest moment is in Act III, when Vincentio tells the condemned Claudio: "Be; absolute for death. This extended speech has the grandeur of Hamlet's soliloquies (written only three years earlier) and sounds like the great dramatic monologues in the three tragedies that Shakespeare followed Measure for Measure with, Othello, Lear and Macbeth.
But Vincentio's speech in Measure, while it sounds eloquent, doesn't make much sense--which is appropriate since the character is one of Shakespeare's oddest creations. Rylance's genius is that his Vincentio definitely has a screw loose. He recites these lines as if he's making them up as he goes along--a difficult trick, but an inspired choice that clarifies the character at the same time that it endears him to the audience.
This scene alone is worth the ticket price, and indeed, Rylance's interpretation provides more insight into Shakespeare and Measure for Measure than an entire semester of study.
The talents of Rylance and his Globe are such that even this imperfect production makes the genius of Shakespeare glow bright even in one of his darkest, most problematic plays
The Globe's staging of Measure for Measure continues through November 26th at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. Justin Tanner's Wife Swappers closes after this Saturday's performance at the Third Stage in Burbank.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.