Review: 'The Measure of Innocence' at The Vault talks injustice
Editor's Note: The event is canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The original story is written below.
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 people that all politics is truly local, and many 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 concerns over COVID-19 and presidential primaries, no matter how justified, often serve 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 "The Measure of Innocence" is loosely based on Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," and it's the second of Bag&Baggage's problem play series in production at The Vault in Hillsboro.
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."
Director Wednesday Sue Derrico'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 storylines, 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 certainly are some funny moments.
Give or take 500 years and some rather profound cultural and racial differences, most of the principal characters and some principal storylines reflect their Shakespearean antecedents.
First off, there's Claudio and his pregnant fiancee, Juliet, and Claudio's very religious sister, Isabel. Along with Claudio's good friend Lucky (Shakespeare's "Lucio"), fellow prisoner Barnadine, and the morally corrupt prosecutor, Angelo, Claudio is wrongly accused and imprisoned, while Isabel is subjected to Angelo's sexual assault.
However, Pearson's work is much darker.
The show does not end with truth, compassion and justice triumphing over systemic corruption. There's suffering and even death to the characters the audience begins to care about.
The addition of 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 these elements 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 fully express the terror, anger and ultimate helplessness of the wrongfully 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.
As for Janelle Rae (Juliet), she grabbed me in her first scene and never let go. Rae creates the quintessential strong black woman, fighting every moment of her life to protect and enlighten her 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. Luster 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 to 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. There also 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.
"The Measure of Innocence" continues 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 22 at The Vault Theatre, 350 E. Main St. in Hillsboro.
Tickets are $32 for adults and $27 for students and seniors.
For more information, visit bagnbaggage.org.
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