Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company and Actors’ Theatre of Washington
At Clark Street Playhouse to Oct. 10
Is it just me, or is Jonathan Tindle one of the funniest men on the planet? Other actors could, no doubt, find laughs in the off-center role Tindle plays in Round House Theatre’s bracingly odd comedy, The Chemistry of Change. Marlane Meyer’s dialogue gives all the characters a shot at guffaws at one point or another. But how many performers could so insistently hold audience attention by receding into the woodwork and trying to slink off unnoticed as the others go about their comic business?
Farley is a minor character, conceived by the playwright as an amiably whining foil for the more assertive members of an upheaval-resistant household. An accomplished card shark, he’s more a kibbitzer than a player in the game of life. Tindle makes him a pajama-clad layabout who spends his days carping from the sidelines as his sister, Corlis (Jane Beard), bellows about how much she hates men, and his mother (Helen Hedman), who provides for the family through divorce settlements, prepares for her 10th walk down the matrimonial aisle.
Compared with his articulately alcoholic brother, Baron (Marty Lodge), or even his demure Aunt Dixon (Kimberly Schraf), Farley is reticent to a fault—which is not to suggest his comments aren’t pointed. Let his sibling Shep (Christopher C. Walker) mention a height-challenged girlfriend, and Farley will offer the brotherly assessment “Phoebe is dwarven; your children would be trolls” without skipping a beat. Tindle utters the insult forcefully, but something in his fastidious delivery and the half-step sideways suggesting that he’s readying to flee deprives it of its sting. Ineffectuality has seldom seemed so endearing. The one time Farley actually manages to be assertive, standing up to his mother with a sharply barked “Whoa,” his boldness seems to leave him even more astonished than it leaves her.
Then again, Mom’s having a confusing day. An unashamed user of men, she has shacked up with the devil—a carnival barker named Smokey (Stephen F. Schmidt) who sports real horns on his forehead to go with a sweetly satanic smile—and has found the experience altogether too satisfying for comfort. Men have always been archetypes to her, and this one represents everything she’s been avoiding all her life: commitment, trust, security. He’s temptation incarnate, a catalyst that might just change her life for the better, a devil who doesn’t believe in divorce because he’s Catholic. And she’s Eve, resisting for all she’s worth. Just try explaining that to the kids.
Or to audiences. Meyer’s script is the oddest front-porch comedy to surface in a while, fraught with symbolism that crosses up expectations and cheekily suburban dialogue that would qualify as naturalistic only on Mount Olympus. It shouldn’t work, but in Sue Ott Rowland’s staging it works pretty splendidly. Rowlands is smart to emphasize the most homey aspects of the household’s domestic life and let the symbolic stuff take care of itself—an approach echoed by designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr., who provides a front porch that looks to have been lifted off a home in the neighborhood surrounding Round House and plunked down intact on the stage. Rosemary Pardee’s costumes are character-defining in down-to-earth ways as well. No sense freighting events with subtext when texts can be so amusing.
All of which leaves the actors free to create characters who function as individuals within archetypes, and they do so with considerable zest. Lodge sends his cynical alcoholic’s first soliloquy soaring to such giddy heights, it’s a wonder he can even get the character’s feet back on the ground afterward, but, by the next scene, he’s become the show’s earthy conscience. Beard is a hoot as a man-loathing schemer who dreams of becoming a nurse so she can write “Do not resuscitate” on some old codger’s medical chart. Walker’s questing, libido-driven high-schooler, Schraf’s spunky spinster, Hedman’s mixed-up mom, and Schmidt’s beelzebubbly seducer are all terrific as they leap headlong into transformations they’ve been avoiding since the dawn of time.
And of course, there’s Tindle’s Farley, resisting change with every fiber of his being, right up to the moment of surrender that he knows will come. And what does he want when his options are opened up? Lots of things—among them, a bidet. From the expression that plays across his visage as he mentions this previously unspoken desire, it’s easy to see that he’s been giving temptation more thought than he’d been letting on.
Measure for Measure gets under way at Clark Street Playhouse with a gospel melody and adopts a decidedly Southern accent thereafter. It also has hanging moss, Georgian architecture, and color-conscious casting that turns the Bard’s 17th-century Christian allegory into a commentary on 1960s race relations.
The production is a tad languid for my tastes, but I suppose one could argue that even the pacing supports the concept Michael Russotto has imposed on Shakespeare’s least comical comedy. And because he’s managed to shoehorn a decent amount of humor into the proceedings, let’s withdraw that minor objection as soon as it’s noted. For those who know the play’s moralistic twists and melodramatic turns, the benefits of the director’s approach easily outweigh the debits.
The central story has to do with a Duke (John Emmert) who turns the governance of his town over to a born-again bureaucrat named Angelo (Christopher Marino) while he goes on sabbatical. The Duke’s hope is that in his absence, Angelo will rein in the libertine tendencies of the citizenry, and, sure enough, Marino’s Angelo immediately starts enforcing a strict moral code that shuts down the local brothel and causes general consternation among the populace. But the ax falls heavier on this production’s African-American Claudio (George Grant) than it does on most citizens. Claudio is condemned to death for getting his white girlfriend pregnant—a punishment that doesn’t seem to strike any of the town’s power-brokers as terribly unfair.
Claudio’s only hope—a slim one—is that his sister, Isabella (Taunya L. Martin), can persuade Angelo to spare him. It turns out she can, but only by sacrificing her virginity to the hypocritical moralist, something she won’t do for reasons that no doubt seemed more persuasive in the 1600s than they do today. At about this point, the Duke, who has been disguised as a clergyman, starts manipulating events toward what has to be the Bard’s most arbitrary happy ending.
The Deep South ambiance and color-conscious casting don’t make the evening’s conclusion work any better than usual, but the director’s skillful playing of the race card makes contemporary sense of the unfairly harsh punishments being meted out to black characters, and of the indifference of the (mostly white) power elite to the plight of the heroine and her brother.
It helps that this joint production of Washington Shakespeare Company and Actors’ Theatre of Washington is as lovingly designed and as smartly acted as it is intelligently staged. Emmert’s stammering but sly Duke and Martin’s radiant Isabella are particularly fine, and there’s a nice comic turn by Chris Stezin as a mendacious blowhard whose well-deserved comeuppance gives the second half of the play most of its comic highlights. Measure for Measure hardly qualifies as a laff riot, even with his ministrations, and character motivations still don’t make much emotional sense. Still, the production deserves credit for confronting, and in many cases sidestepping, some of the play’s most persistent problems.