Gender Blender

Shaking up Shakespeare's female roles, with mixed results.

 Measured Ends takes us on a playful feminist romp through several Shakespeare plays. In the playwright's All's Well That Ends Well, the heroine, Helena, wins her reluctant husband, Bertram, by using an old folk-tale standby, the "bed trick." Already married to Bertram -- though the marriage remains unconsummated -- Helena slips into the bed of Diana, the chaste woman Bertram has dishonestly pursued and thinks he's won, and sleeps with him by stealth.

The bed trick also appears in Measure for Measure, though here it's only part of a subplot. Puritanical Angelo has deserted his lover, Mariana. Deputized by the duke to wield absolute power in Vienna, Angelo sentences a young man to death for fornication. The young man's sister, Isabella, is a novice in a nunnery. When she goes to Angelo to plead for her brother's life, he falls in love with her. He will spare her brother, he says, if she'll sleep with him. Of course, she doesn't. But Mariana -- who still, despite all, loves Angelo -- is persuaded to take her place: another bed trick. Then there's a fair amount of legal argy-bargy, and, under threat of death, Angelo finally agrees to marry Mariana.

These are very different women. Helena is strong, intelligent and enterprising. Mariana is simply another version of Patient Griselda (or Tammy Wynette), the woman who remains true to her beloved no matter what cruelties he puts her through.

Bill Berry and Katherine Benfield in Measured Ends.
Cate Francis
Bill Berry and Katherine Benfield in Measured Ends.

Details

Presented by Industrial Arts Theatre Company
Through June 1, 303-399-4662, www.denvercivic.com
Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive

Measured Ends examines the aftermath of the traditional happily-ever-after ending as Mariana and Helena, now both fleeing unhappy marriages, encounter one another at the friendly inn run by Mistress Quickly of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It's a delicious premise, and playwright Helena Soister, who clearly loves Shakespeare, has a lot of fun with it. Lines from the Bard's other plays -- from Hamlet to King Lear to The Taming of the Shrew -- fly all over the place; passages of iambic pentameter are undercut by quizzical contemporary comments; the women puzzle their way through the dramatic conventions that have shaped their lives. "I was talking to myself," Helena says of an overheard monologue that tripped her up in All's Well. "Everyone did then." Building on the experience of several Shakespearean heroines, Mariana puts a pair of trousers over her skirt and announces that now everyone will take her for a man, which makes Helena crack up. They debate the difference between tragedy and comedy, and whether they can bridge the divide.

There's a hilarious argument between the two women about the ethics of their differing uses of the bed trick. As Bertram's true wife, Helena claims the moral high ground. "I saved a nun's virginity and her brother's life," Mariana retorts.

Why was it, they wonder, that these threadbare tricks and devices worked? Why did they both follow convention in selflessly loving such unworthy men? "Was it the language that made everything seem different?" asks a wistful Helena.

Periodically, Mistress Quickly appears to provide food or move the plot along. Robin, another denizen of the inn and the sole male in the play, is always on hand to act out scenes with Helena and Mariana. Finally, the three witches from Macbeth arrive to help the women figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Witch One, finding medication more potent than spells, is now a therapist. The group cobbles together bits of plot from Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream, expanding on themes, swapping roles, mixing modern and Elizabethan concepts. Helena wants to break free of the Shakespearean canon completely, but apparently this can't be done. That realization leads to a prolonged discussion about free will versus fate, a topic that -- as a thicket of quotations proves -- Shakespeare's characters frequently, passionately and contradictorily discuss. Although interesting at first, this bone is gnawed by the playwright a little bit too long.

There are other flaws in Measured Ends. The second act feels somewhat static, the third downright muddled, as if Soister couldn't quite figure out how to finish things. There's a brilliant "Who's on First"-type riff about "Which witch?" But when a drunken Helena breaks into rhyme, the rhymes aren't very funny. Mistress Quickly, ably played by Anna Hadzi, seems more like a plot device than a person, Shakespearean or otherwise. Although Hadzi gives the character an interestingly dour Lily Tomlin persona, Mistress Q apparently lacks any thoughts or motivations of her own.

The acting in this Industrial Arts Theatre production is uneven. As Mariana, Karen Slack has a fine rolling eye and a compelling presence, but she tends to overdo things. Her character would be more effective if she took it down a notch. Katherine Benfield is a pleasantly calm Helena, though every now and then, she, too, gets a little shrieky. William Berry gives a wry performance as Robin, and I liked Tara M.E. Thompson's smooth Witch One.

 
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