Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Off the Rails (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Measure for Measure is one of several of Shakespeare's works dubbed "problem plays" by literary experts.  To be fair, plenty of actors and directors agree.  It certainly does not easily fall into one of the neat categories of Comedy, Tragedy or History.  At least it doesn't feel that way.

Off the Rails is based on this "problem play," relocating it in time and space to the Old West. More, it retells the whole story in terms of the Native American experience.  This sounds intriguing, at least to me.  It frankly proved better than expected overall. Randy Reinholz (Choctaw) did the adaptation, and honestly the result ends up uneven.

Let us get the unevenness out of the way right now.  The whole thing keeps having sudden changes of mood and feel, at times to considerable dramatic impact but other times I felt yanked out of the story.  Having Buffalo Bill's Wild  West Show pop up at the end was one, and having it followed by a Native dance was another.  The former felt awkward and the latter felt as if it came out of nowhere.  Methinks the idea behind it is clear, and let me say that idea seems borderline glorious.  But the transition was about as awkward and clumsy as possible.  Nor frankly did it help that much of the show was directed in the style of a rather cheesy production of Oklahomah! I'll also point out the exposition at the start filled me with dread.  It looked little better than a kindergarden play.
PHOTO CREDIT: Craig Schwartz © 2015

Now, though, let me turn to where the play and production not only rose above all that but soared! At its finest this proved in many ways the best Measure for Measure I've ever seen! Start with the how the whole story ends up framed.  The frontier, a place were laws alternate between loose and severe.  Where vast power concentrates in the hands of the very few, with an even greater divide based on race.  Loads of opportunities here, but Rheinholz makes a few dazzling choices.  First and foremost, he eschewed turning the equivalent of Vienna's Duke into the lead.  This proved brilliant!  All of his storyline that makes up the bulk of the play then becomes not about a startlingly good and wise man setting right his realm, but about how an oppressed people meet the challenge of a deeply unjust world. Many of the Duke's lines and actions transfer to Madame Overdone (Shyla Marlin - Choctaw), who also ends up methinks with some variations of lines from Othello's Emilia, cutting ones about women and men. This is good stuff!  Especially since Madame Overdone's salloon singer proves to be none other than Mariana (Adrieanne Perez), placing her in the action from very early on--a stereotype who suddenly becomes a far more complex person in our eyes once we learn anything at all about her.

PHOTO CREDIT: Craig Schwartz © 2015
More, now Isobel (Elizabeth Frances - Cherokee) becomes an even more powerful character than she is in the original!  Not least because there's no one to offer answers to her dilema, no vastly powerful figure in disguise rendering aid.  The Duke, as I said, is gone.  She's left on her own in the face of Captain Angelo's self-righteousness and racist lust (Michael Matthys), threatening her brother's life and her own chastity.  The scenes between these two rivet with horror, not least because unlike with Shakespeare's play, we don't see a deus ex machina in sight. 

Parenthetically, I must point out the blocking in these scenes sometimes really interferes.  These actors prove themselves very capable of filling stillness with radiant power.  Wish they were given more chance to do so!

Likewise, the Claudio character now rises as well!  Shaun Taylor-Corbett (Blackfeet) as Momaday becomes less a background stock character and more of a tragic hero, even given lines from the male half of Romeo
PHOTO CREDIT: Craig Schwartz © 2015
and Juliet. More than his life turns out to be at stake. His identity is under attack, as it has been since childhood, as the Whites have sought to "Kill the Indian, save the Man" by eradicating Native culture.  That he fell in love with an Irish girl (Emily Lenkeit) who wed him in a Choctaw ceremony but begged him to do the same in a Christian one brings out more of what makes the original a "problem play."  It doesn't give simple answers.  What after all really is justice?  How does one decide what to do when there aren't any good choices?  Does mercy extend only to those whom you like or are like you?  Should it? Can it?

As noted earlier, the whole production remains uneven, but I strongly recommend audiences to go anyway. This play rises to the level of resplendent more than a few times.  The leads do wonders with their roles, and more than once my heart felt pierced with the pain of these characters.

Off the Rails performs Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm until March 15, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Theater in The Autry Museum in Griffith Park. 

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