Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bad guys, part 1

So the two plays I reviewed this week make a great double-feature, and it’s not just because nuns play pivotal roles in each. Each of them exemplify something theater does that movies and television generally choose not to do these days: present a nuanced bad guy and, in the case of Doubt, wrap up a story with ambivalence – and a thrilling ambivalence at that – rather than tidying things up. Does anyone remember a movie called “Limbo” (directed by John Sayles) from about 8 years ago? It caused a minor stir because of its ambivalent ending. Doubt, on the other hand, won acclaim, a Tony and a Pulitzer. Go figure.

But on this bad guy business, I totally agree with Andrew Hamm, who happens to play the “bad guy” in Measure for Measure, on the interpretation of Angelo that he talks about on his blog. In fact, I left the play wanting to focus my review principally on this but quickly realized my 300 words would be up in no time (of course, I also wanted to write about the near-death-defying antics of the actors trying not to trip on the slippery rugs -- but I thought I'd take Andrew on his word that they were going to address that...). The commentary I’ve read on M4M categorically refers to Angelo as the villain and often characterizes him as a rapist. But as Mr. Hamm alludes to, he’s put in a position specifically to clean up Venice and the person he has sex with actually wants to have sex with him. Is strict adherence to law the fault of the adherent law-enforcer or the fault of the law (or those who enacted it)? Is it rape if the person being "raped" actually considers it a consensual act? Interesting questions and ones that should certainly shade judgment of Angelo.

What’s great about Andrew’s performance is that he doesn’t make Angelo a boring, bad-just-because-he’s-bad villain. He obviously falls for Isabella (and really, who wouldn't?) and he wouldn’t be the first man in power to take advantage of his position to secure his relationship with a beautiful woman. It’s also telling to me that the audience does not see what I think is Angelo’s most despicable act: trying to hasten the execution of Claudio after his tryst rather than staying it. That this directive originates off-stage makes me think that Shakespeare wanted us not to think of Angelo quite as badly as we otherwise would.

I think one of the challenges for director Bond and actor Hamm once they made this choice about Angelo is that he becomes a character much more like Claudio. To some extent, both men are conflicted over whether to take advantage of Isabella. At first, Claudio totally accepts her unwillingness to give up her virtue for him but then, in the face of death, starts to think, “well, heck sis, what’s a little virtue? At least you’ll still be alive!”

So, as I alluded to in my review, I think the real triumph of Andrew’s performance is that even while they wrestle with similar demons, his portrayal of each of them is distinct. His portrayals are filled with shadings (particularly for Angelo) that allow the audience-member to clearly identify each character and understand each of their predicaments. It’s good work and I’d go on even more about it but I wouldn’t want him to get either a) a big head or b) complacent.

One more comment on M4M: I really enjoyed John Moss’ performance. I admit that while I found the relative extremity of his performance a bit jarring – both Lucio and the executioner could have been characters in a Monty Python skit – they both made me laugh out loud. I really would have been happy to watch him go on all night and I look forward to seeing him in a comedy where I might be able to just appreciate the laughs he generates without being otherwise distracted by the contrasting melodrama.

Tomorrow (or soon): some discussion about the bad guy (guys?) in Doubt.


Thespis' Little Helper said...

Is there a bad guy in Doubt?

Andrew Hamm said...

Thanks so much for your kindness, Dave. This has been one of those rare, rare experiences as an actor where you get the role of a lifetime, the right director (in James Bond) to shepherd you through it, and absolutely the right actor (in Liz Blake) to play with. Liz and James are absolutely responsible for anything good I might be doing in this show.

Last week, I was a guest lecturer in Professor Joshua Eckhardt's 250-student "Shakespeare's Plays" class at VCU, and we talked a lot about the various faults of each of the show's characters. But we delved most deeply into the Angelo mess, largely because, well, I was the only actor there and it was what I could speak most intelligently about. There's nothing like arguing the morality of sexual coercion with a room full of 20-year-olds!

Professor Eckhardt's students made up a significant portion of our audiences last weekend, and it had an unusual result. Liz left the stage after Friday night's show and exclaimed, "They're all on your side! They hate Isabella! It's the Angelo fan club out there!"

By the end of the weekend, they had clearly turned into the Lucio fan club. John Moss is freaking funny. I particularly enjoy our dueling Tom Waits voices in the Barnardine-Abhorson scene.

I say this for almost every show Richmond Shakespeare does, but this time I really really mean it: There are some truly special performances in Measure for Measure, and an ensemble chemistry that seeps into every nook and cranny of the script. Don't miss it, theatre lovers!

(Oh, and just to clarify: the link is to Richmond Shakespeare's blog, not mine. And I'm Claudio in the Style picture. Angelo can only WISH Isabella would let him get that close.)

Anonymous said...

Dave, the blog you mention is the RS company blog. Andrew's personal blog may be found here:

He brings up a great point about STYLE criticism that might make a nice corollary to your previous postings thereon...have a look.

PS - Apologies if this has been mentioned here before. Did you see this month's article in American Theatre on criticism featuring Brustein, Bentley and Kauffmann?

hoosier steve said...

Whether or not there is a bad guy in Doubt should be left to the individual audience members.
I know someone who saw two production in one week, after the first one he was convinced of the priests guild, after the second he was convinced the priest did nothing wrong. The beauty of the show is in its ambiguity, which I believe is one of your points Dave.

Andrew Hamm said...


Two weeks late (due to donor illness), but they have indeed arrived. No slipping, no sliding last night; nothing but sound-absorbing, fall-cushioning splendiferous goodness.