A man is unfairly destined for execution. His sister, a young nun, can only save him by giving up her virginity to the awful governor. But another woman is willing to sleep with him instead. So she and a ragtag team pull off a “bed-trick.”
This is the plot of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” But set it in the late 1800s American West, make its dramatis personae a PG “Deadwood” cadre of prostitutes and sheriffs, change a few plot points, and make it a musical. But keep the iambic pentameter and even rhymed couplets.
And now you’ve got “Desperate Measures,” Peter Kellogg and David Friedman’s deliciously smart hoot of a musical comedy. It’s onstage for one more week in a glorious, musically superlative romp of a production by Good Theater, under the rollicking direction of Brian P. Allen and Cary Libkin, with Victoria Stubbs’ excellent musical direction.
Our Wild West setting is rendered simply: the Governor’s austere wooden desk to the right, a jail cell to the left, and, upstage, a backdrop of cacti and the sign for “Wild Will’s Saloon” in period saloon font. Our characters are stock Old West types – stylishly outfitted in bolo ties and belt buckles, hats and holsters, corsets and bloomers – who gleam in the show’s tongue-in-cheek comedy.
Sister Mary Jo (Gusta Johnson, mellifluous and feisty) is a pious novice who also shoots at crows and is kind of bossy. Her brother, the condemned-to-death Johnny Blood (John Lanham, a great belter), keens in his cell about how wonderfully alive the cacti and coyotes are. Tall and dark in a long white coat, Sheriff Green (Smith Daniels, with fine comedic nuance) has a lawman’s ironic gaze and an ingenue’s fumbling gentleness when it comes to whether Sister Mary Jo wants him to kiss her. (Spoiler: she does.)
Meanwhile, the horrible Governor (a great gruff, lecherous, villainously mustached Tony Reilly) is a German with the last name of von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber, which (according to Google) roughly translates as “Judge-Hanging-Worker.” Heart-of-gold prostitute Bella Rose (Colleen Clark, with June Carter Cash charisma and sass), who loves Johnny and agrees to the bed trick, has already slept with the Governor, so no biggie. And the Irish priest Father Morse (Glenn Anderson), locked up with Johnny for drunkenness, is obsessed with Nietzsche.
Good Theater’s ensemble is fantastic – fluent in the script’s rhythms and quick pick-ups, deft at physical gags (dodging Sister Mary Jo’s ricocheting bullet; pulling off a mirror fake-out with two brides pretending to be one), gorgeous in song, and cohesive in a rapport that positively glows.
Musically, the show soars through Friedman’s terrific Western, country, and ragtime-inflected numbers, with Stubbs on piano leading the stellar pit band (Joe Greene on double bass, Sam Schuth on violin and mandolin, and J.D. Raines on guitar, mandolin, and banjo). Friedman’s score is rich with wild-ride octaves and dynamics; like Kellogg’s book and lyrics, it’s at once erudite, clever, and – above all – deeply entertaining.
And Kellogg’s iambic dialogue is a treat whether or not you relish dramatic verse – but especially if you do. Like Shakespeare and Moliere, he wrangles regular language, slang, asides, and exclamations into heightened rhythms and rhymes, creating a vivid mock-epic comedy. And Good Theater’s production nails it.
“Measure for Measure” is known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” for the ambiguity of its tone and genre. Kellogg’s script culls the more convoluted plot devices, but it’s still remarkable how much sense this strange story of moral ambiguity makes in America’s own moral and literal Wild West – an ethos that continues to feel not that far from our present.
So it’s a solace and a treat that in “Desperate Measure,” at least, the good folks win.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
On the boards, on screen
For your dose of mystery-farce, the board-game-turned-movie-turned-stage-play “Clue: On Stage” continues this weekend, through April 24, at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. FMI: https://usm.maine.edu/theatre/2021-2022-usm-theatre-season.
Another film-turned-play – “Once,” about dreamy young singer-songwriters falling in love – has just opened to the south at Portsmouth’s Seacoast Rep. It runs through June 5. FMI: https://seacoastrep.org/.
Did you miss Portland Stage Company’s “I and You” onstage? You’re in luck: it’s now streaming online through May 1. FMI: https://www.portlandstage.org.
And an online role-playing game becomes a tale of horror in Jane Schoenbrun’s 2021 film “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” in which young Casey in the attic records how the game is changing her. It screens at SPACE in Portland on April 22. FMI: https://space538.org/event/were-all-going-to-the-worlds-fair/.
— Megan Grumbling