Descend to the depths of La Val’s for Theatre Lunatico’s mediocre ‘Measure for Measure’

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You may have often sat near the pool table in La Val’s Pizza, enjoying your flavorful, cheesy shrimp marinara or a somewhat underwhelming slice of Athenian pizza, and wondered where that strange staircase into the dungeon-like depths below could possibly lead — after all, it seems far too heavily trafficked for a basement. If you pull aside a passer-by making their way down the steps, you’ll learn of Theatre Lunatico, the tiny theater company that made its home in the pizzeria’s underground.

Theatre Lunatico, which had previously hopped from theater to theater, moved permanently into La Val’s Subterranean Theater this past September and quickly set to work turning concrete floors and janky lighting into a bona fide black box theater. The company produces a series of ensemble works, with an emphasis as much on physical experimentation as on gender equality.

It’s ambitious for a company that aims to “promote strong images of women” to tackle Shakespeare — who, while being many remarkable things, was never much of a feminist. His female characters (who, of course, would have been played by men anyway) are often frantic and mad, naively romantic or straight-up irrelevant. But nonetheless, Theatre Lunatico brings us “Measure for Measure,” and, with a few adjustments, gives female performers something juicy to work with.

No more than two dozen people make their way into the depths of the theater for the show. The ceilings are low; every square inch is painted black. The venue, admittedly, feels like it’s probably haunted, but the air is casual — “Measure for Measure” is a comedy, after all.

The plot reads like familiar Shakespearean fare — Claudio (James Aaron Oh) has illegitimately impregnated fair Juliet (Keara Reardon), and is sentenced to death by hypocritical hardass Angelo (Shane Fahy), who has taken command of Vienna in the absence of the Duke of Vienna (Leon Goertzen). Isabella (Isabelle Grimm), Claudio’s sister and a novice nun, goes to Angelo and pleads for him to have mercy on Claudio, but Angelo will only agree if Isabella gives up her virginity and sleeps with Angelo. The Duke, meanwhile, isn’t all that absent; he’s disguised as a friar and facilitates much of the action, including an elaborate bed trick between Isabella and Angelo’s former flame, Mariana (Melissa Ortiz).

The play reads as a critique of the moral rigidity and hypocrisy of religion and civil law, and while certainly possessing more than a few funny quips, it doesn’t actually scream “comedy” the way “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” do. It’s hard to say whether the absence of frequent laughter was the result of Shakespeare’s original writing or Theatre Lunatico’s rendition. It did feel as if certain comedic beats were missed, and, particularly in the first half of act one, a few actors steamrolled through the verse, barely permitting the text to breathe.

Theatre Lunatico touts its production as something of a modern reimagining, but here again it misses its mark. Contemporary elements — costumes, props and music, for example — are fairly half-baked, leaving many visuals feeling firmly entrenched in the archaic. Other choices feel a touch too on the nose, such as a short-tempered and mean-spirited constable upgraded to resemble a stereotypical hick (though hearing Shakespeare in a Southern accent was, admittedly, a strange sort of treat).

It’s clear that Theatre Lunatico is still adjusting to its space. The company did make good use of every nook and cranny, with scenes happening on the main stage as well as in the back corner, behind the audience, and off in the second set of audience seats located to the right of the stage. It added a layer of dynamism to the performance, but one that could be too assertive sonically — characters shouting or aggressively banging metal rods against the walls could at times be abrasive on the ears.

There might still be plenty of kinks to work out before the company’s production of “Dracula” debuts this fall, but there’s also plenty to the Theatre Lunatico formula that the company needn’t mess with — namely, the female cast members excel at their craft, and the company should continue to push their performances into the subterranean limelight.

Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].