Home Entertainment Review | A Shakespeare riff that swaps in singing cowboys for severed heads

Review | A Shakespeare riff that swaps in singing cowboys for severed heads

Review | A Shakespeare riff that swaps in singing cowboys for severed heads


Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” has plenty to recommend it: stirring speeches about the nobility of mercy, still-resonant themes of government overreach in the morality department. But despite its vaguely nonsensical, pseudo-happy ending, “Measure” is pretty dour; few would put the genre-defying “problem play” on a list of the Bard’s most uproarious comedies.

But everyone’s having a blast in “Desperate Measures,” David Friedman and Peter Kellogg’s Wild West-set musical adaptation of the Shakespeare play, now being staged by Constellation Theatre Company, where it’s easy to go along for the ride.

Names and scenarios have been changed, and stray plots dropped. (There’s less gore — meaning no severed-head swaps! — but an opening monologue winkingly acknowledges they’ve kept the sexier bits). The premise remains intact: Affable ne’er-do-well Johnny Blood (Hunter Ringsmith) gets sentenced to hang after a shootout, and Arizona’s hard-nosed Governor (a gleefully villainous Greg Watkins) isn’t sympathetic to claims of self-defense. Johnny’s sister Susanna (Julia Link), on the precipice of becoming a nun, begs the leader for a pardon. He’s into it — if she’ll give up her chastity in exchange. That’s not on the table (much to her brother’s chagrin; most women take their virtue a lot less seriously, he pleads). But Susanna is game to go along with a plan to fool the politician, courtesy of the town’s smarter-than-he-looks sheriff (Tyler Dobies), that would have her brother’s courtesan lover Bella (Audrey Baker) stand in during the actual sex part.

It’s during the outlining of this outlandish scheme (“It Doesn’t Hurt to Try”) that “Desperate Measures” finds its footing, leaning into Shakespeare’s beloved mistaken-identity high jinks (“A man believes he knows his wife, but in the darkness … does he?”). Before this, the musical struggles tonally through a couple of wistful ballads with clunky lyrics (“The more I live, the more I see that humankind ain’t kind,” Dobies gets stuck singing at one point), though Watkins manages to sell his Disney villain-esque “Someday They Will Thank Me” on sheer charm. Constellation’s roots in farce serve the company well, and the musical eventually settles into the right over-the-top rhythm; Act 2 is a riot. Samuel Klaas’s saloon-style set, with its heavy wood paneling, cow skulls and cactuses, provides a flexible home for the show’s swift scene shifts (a bed appears amusingly out of nowhere at one point).

The show’s language is contemporary but proceeds in a series of casual couplets, a device that can occasionally be distracting. Most of the bluegrass-brushed songs ably move the story along without really resonating as stand-alone numbers, but Baker delivers a winning burlesque torch song with “It’s Getting Hot in Here,” and Dobies’s impeccable comic timing is put to good use in “Stop There,” as he cuts himself off over and over before his inner monologue acknowledges his growing attraction to Susanna.

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It wouldn’t take much to give “Measure for Measure” a little more feminist heft, and “Desperate Measures” fleshes out the underlying motivations of its female leads (both ably embodied by understudies during Monday’s performance — the principles are expected to be back this weekend). The show explores the growing friendship between Bella and Susanna, and is at its most delightful during the pair’s identity swaps (a great visual gag has Bella acting as a full-length mirror at one point). Hypocrisy, a heavy theme in “Measure for Measure,” also isn’t limited to the villains onstage here, as Susanna accuses herself of it while wrestling aloud with her own motivations toward future sisterhood and her growing emotion toward the sheriff. Things all wrap up with a pair of hasty marriages that manage to feel more earned than Shakespeare’s dubious 11th-hour couplings — turns out it’s a beautiful day for a lifelong commitment.

Desperate Measures, adapted from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure; book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg, music by David Friedman. Orchestrations by David Hancock Turner, vocal arrangements by David Friedman. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; music director, Refiye Tappan. Choreography, Nikki Mirza; scenic design, Samuel Klaas; costume design, Jeannette Christensen; lighting design, E-hui; sound design, Kevin Lee Alexander. Props design, Amy Kellett; intimacy and fight direction, Jenny Male; dialect coach, Jenna Berk; production stage manager, Jenna Keefer. About 2 hours and 10 minutes, plus one intermission. Through March 17 at the Source Theatre; 1835 14th St. NW; constellationtheatre.org.


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