|Anya Pearson, Donovan Mahannah, Phillip J. Berns|
By Tina Arth
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (well, at least in the musical Annie), once said, “when people are starving, there is no long run.” In other words, when people’s lives are in crisis, it is neither reasonable nor fair to ask them to step back and look at the big picture. In this vein, Bag&Baggage Productions has picked a perfect time and vehicle to remind us that all politics is truly local and many people’s lives are always on the edge of crisis – for such people, the day-to-day challenges of real life must take priority over the big national and international issues that dominate the headlines. Our concern over COVID-19 and presidential primaries, no matter how justified, often serves to distract us from the fundamental injustices in American society that place some groups, particularly people of color, at risk every day of their lives.
Playwright Anya Pearson’s Measure of Innocence is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and it is the second of Bag&Baggage’s Problem Play Series playing at The Vault. The program provides a commission to an “Oregon-based playwright of color to adapt one of William Shakespeare’s problem plays with a diversity/inclusion lens.” Wednesday Sue Derrico’s Director’s Notes say it better than I can: “This play is about the injustice and structural racism that guides the judicial and prison systems in America today…through a diversity of character and story lines, it sheds light on the residual effects these broken systems place onto all of us.” While Measure for Measure is generally classified as comedy, Pearson’s adaptation would never be described that way (although there are certainly some funny moments).
Give or take 500 years and some rather profound cultural and racial differences, most of the principal characters and some principal story lines reflect their Shakespearean antecedents – there’s Claudio and his pregnant fiancée, Juliet, Claudio’s very religious sister Isabel, his good friend Lucky (Shakespeare’s “Lucio”), his fellow prisoner Barnadine, and the morally corrupt prosecutor, Angelo. Claudio is wrongly accused and imprisoned, Isabel subjected to Angelo’s sexual assault as she pleads for her brother. However, Pearson’s work is much darker – Measure of Innocence does not end with truth, compassion, and justice triumphing over systemic corruption; suffering, even death, come to characters we care about. The addition of pussy hat wearing social justice warriors, a talk show host, the playwrights themselves (both Will and Anya), and a nonsense spouting President break the tension with an element of surreal humor, but do not interrupt the play’s essential narrative.
About half of the cast comprises Bag&Baggage veterans, but most of the principal roles go to accomplished performers who are new or have made just one previous appearance at The Vault. I was deeply moved by Donovan Mahannah (Claudio) and Curtis Maxey Jr. (Lucky), the actors who fully express the terror, anger, and ultimate helplessness of the unjustly accused in a corrupt, racist system where the state holds all of the power. Kayla Dixon creates a frustratingly religious “Isabel” – I wanted to cheer when she set aside her blind faith in an all-knowing God and stood up for herself and her brother. Janelle Rae (Juliet) grabbed me in their first scene and never let go – they create the quintessential strong Black woman, fighting every moment of their life to protect and enlighten their peers. As Barnadine, Eric Island captures the essence of a prison’s version of an elder statesman, guiding Claudio in the ways of survival in an unremittingly hostile universe by keeping his head down and staying out of trouble.
James Luster is appropriately horrifying as the corrupt and lascivious Mike Angelo, but it is his brief interludes as the unnamed, yet clearly identified President, that really allow him to shine – he captures that unmistakable voice and diction without going over the top. Bag&Baggage Associate Artist Phillip J. Berns’ “Shakespeare” sparkles throughout, lending a note of levity with his mobility and agility while reminding us that we are watching an adaptation.
The starkly white, modernistic set creates a nice contrast with the darkness of the story, and Blanca Forzan’s scenic and lighting design creates the surreal atmosphere that allows the audience members to use their imaginations to fill in between the lines. The movable staircase cuts quickly through changes of scene, allowing the actors’ slow progress up the steps to the prison’s bars to illustrate the separation between the imprisoned and those on the outside.
The thematic intensity means that The Measure of Innocence is not a fun show for the actors or the (primarily white) audience – but both the author and director prioritize enlightenment over entertainment. The close-minded, and those who are unwilling to think about the role that privilege plays in their lives, might well be offended, and there is a level of violence and assault that may trigger the fragile. It is the kind of theater that calls for intellectual and emotional unpacking – if you go, see it with a friend and spend some time discussing the content and your reactions.
Bag&Baggage’s The Measure of Innocence is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through March 22nd, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.