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‘Measure for Measure’ Takes the Stage for Bard on the Beach

Director Jivesh Parasram transforms the age-old story into a darkly absurd mashup of 'Footloose' and Shakespeare.

Bard on the Beach 18 Jun 2024The Tyee

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is not usually a barrel of laughs. One of the “problem plays” in his canon, the text jars modern sensibilities, dealing as it does with coercion, power imbalances and hypocrisy. When Bard proposed to director Jivesh Parasram that he take it on, his initial impulse was to say “hell, no.”

“The play presents a horrible situation,” said Parasram, artistic director of Rumble Theatre and a Governor General’s Literary Award nominee. “It’s supposed to be a comedy but it’s highly problematic. It’s supposed to be funny, so in the end basically everyone gets married, as in all Shakespearean comedies, but it’s just a horrible message and ending.”

So, Parasram leaned into the absurdity inherent in the text, by substituting sexual activity for dancing. In Parasram’s adaptation, it’s premarital dancing that’s outlawed. Vienna is a party city, with rockin’ dance floors and a thriving club scene. Notorious party animal Duke Vincentio is keeping the music going all night long — until he receives a decree that long-forgotten morality laws must be enforced. He flees the city, leaving the un-groovy Angelo in charge of a dance crackdown.

“I thought about framing this in terms of power dynamics — maybe race or gender inversions I could accomplish with casting; but my other challenge was how to keep it funny.

“Fundamentally, it’s my intention to keep it about consent as the core conflict — but in a way that hopefully reduces potential triggers for audiences,” he said.

“And I suppose it’s also interesting to me that it could start some conversations on the topic and be funny, because technically it is a comedy — at least structurally. For example, in the original text when Claudio appeals to Isabella to sleep with Angelo to save his own life, well, now it’s ‘please dance with this man.’ I think the former seems much more serious than the latter. But it’s still non-consensual. So… it’s not that funny — but we have more permission to laugh. And laughter is a way of processing information.”

The darkly absurd mashup of Footloose, Shakespeare and contemporary theatre stars, in alphabetical order: Scott Bellis, Meaghan Chenosky, Tess Degenstein, Leslie Dos Remedios, Craig Erickson, Karthik Kadam, Jeremy Lewis and Raugi Yu.

The set design, which evokes the crumbling backstreets of Euro-club capitals like Berlin, is by Ryan Cormack. Costume design is by Alaia Hamer and references streetwear from the ‘80s to today. Evocative and shadowy lighting is by Hina Nishioka; and sound design is by Chris Ross-Ewart, who will introduce audiences to underground club bangers through the ages. Choreography is by Krystal Kiran — the youngest South Asian woman to perform on Broadway.

‘Measure for Measure’ runs from July 4 to Sept. 20 under the tents at Sen̓áḵw/Vanier Park. For more information visit the Bard on the Beach website.  [Tyee]

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