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Shakespeare in Delaware Park turns ‘Measure for Measure’ into a musical western

Tonight, Shakespeare in Delaware Park will open its second show of the 2013 season with a cheeky, musically inflected take on Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”

Unlike its popular and straight-ahead run of “Hamlet,” which was as faithful as possible to Shakespeare’s setting and most of his text, this historically troublesome comedy will stray much further in time and place: all the way from Vienna, Austria, to the lawless border town of Vienna, Texas.

Director Brian Cavanagh, who helmed a fast-paced and engrossing production of “The Merchant of Venice” in 2011 and has long served as SDP’s lighting designer, decided to have a little fun with the play after reading through the difficult and sometimes plodding text.

“I don’t think there’s an unbelievable story here. It’s a good story, but it’s not Hamlet, it’s not MacB,” he said, following the theatrical superstition that you don’t say the name of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in the vicinity of a theater. “It’s kind of a light story told in a hard way. So I said I want to keep all the basic story so people understand why we’re there, but all around the edges we should make it interesting so people understand and we can keep them entertained all through it.”

To that end, Cavanagh tightened up some of the language and some extraneous bits and pieces of exposition and dialogue. He’s added in some cowboy slang and lingo to place the play firmly in its new Wild West context. And, perhaps most significantly, he’s added six musical numbers to the show in order to amplify the Wild West mood.

The songs, like a version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” will serve as accents to the action rather than plot elements, and they’re not meant to be big production numbers. Few of the cast members are trained musical theater performers, Cavanagh added, which works for the sort of tossed-off nature of the songs.

“It’s kind of a comic relief in between scenes, and all of them are Western songs, either just Americana songs or from Western movies,” he said. “There really is no rhyme or reason, I just thought they fit.”

The play, in Cavanagh’s version, tells the story of a sheriff (Matt Witten) who hightails it out of his corruption-ridden town and leaves control to his deputy (Patrick Moltane). The deputy, who is law-abiding to a fault and ignores the advice of his wise old confidant Escalus (Peter Peterson), sentences the otherwise law-abiding citizen Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant before they tied the knot. Claudio’s sister, the nun-in-training Isabella (Susan Drozd), cannot convince the deputy to relent. Fortunately for all involved, the duke returns to town disguised as a friar, and helps devise a scheme by which the deputy is forced to release Claudio from his death sentence.

After Cavanagh read through the play a few times at the request of SDP founder and director Saul Elkin – a grueling endeavor, he said – he decided a fun and rather radical treatment was the right approach.

“When I hit Saul up with that, about it being a Western, he said, ‘Are you sure about this?’ And I said, ‘Well, no, but I think it’s an interesting way to go,’ ” Cavanagh said. “When I finally got through it many times, I thought, I can see it’s kind of laborious, it’s kind of long and draggy for not a very big ending.

“Everything gets a little sinister and heavy and then at the end everybody’s let off and everybody’s happy. It doesn’t have a lot to it, I don’t think. So that’s why I made some changes.”