REVIEW: Shakespeare goes West in “Desperate Measures”
2017 was the year of “Measure for Measure”, with three separate productions of Shakespeare’s notorious “problem play” gracing New York stages in a matter of months.
Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn produced a modern day version leaning into the darker themes of the comedy’s ruminations on justice, faith, power, and sex—replete with an immersive brothel inspired entrance. Meanwhile, The Public Theater presented Elevator Repair Service’s playfully fast paced version bouncing with Marx Brothers-like slapstick amid speed-talked speeches aided by textual projections and teleprompters. The third and final “version” was York Theatre Company’s production of a new musical loosely inspired by the central plot of “Measure for Measure” and set in the Wild West in the late 1800s.
“Desperate Measures”, which re-opened on June 13th for an open-ended commercial run at New World Stages Off-Broadway, strips away the framing device, subplots, and darker themes of Shakespeare’s tonally imbalanced original text, focusing instead on the sexual romp—including the infamous “bed trick” scenario—embedded (pun intended) within and, in the process, perhaps solving the “problem” of this problem play by making it a pure comedy.
Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) is a hot-headed cowboy who finds himself locked up with an inebriated, atheist Father Morse (Gary Marachek) in the “End of the Trail Jail” after a drunken bar fight led him to kill “Big Swede” for playing rough with his intended, Bella Rose (Lauren Molina), a “saloon girl” (read: sex worker).
A stoic but sympathetic Sheriff Green (Peter Saide) hatches a plot for Johnny’s sister, literal Sister Mary Jo (Sarah Parnicky), a novice nun, to plead for Johnny’s clemency before Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman), who for some unexplained reason is German.
The corrupt and creepy Governor (“make Arizona great again”) agrees to free Johnny only if Sister Mary Jo will sleep with him, an offer to which Sheriff Green devises the aforementioned “bed trick” in which Bella subs for Sister Mary Jo once the lights are out. From there, the plot thickens, the absurdity and sexism of the gender politics glossed over and forgiven by the setting and lightness of tone.
An easy charmer that’s performed entirely in verse, “Desperate Measures” abandons any pretense of wrestling with Shakespeare’s grander, weightier statements about corruption and purity in favor of a simpler story that borrows Shakespearean conventions, but plays out like the early musicals of the 1930s (spoiler alert: act two ends with a double wedding), often with silent film sensibilities.
While it certainly could be punchier and more socially relevant, I am hard pressed to think of another new musical as fun and, well, charming—a guilty pleasure that kept me smiling from start to finish. The Drama Desk-winning music and lyrics by David Friedman and Peter Kellogg, who also wrote the book, go light in employing old west musical idioms, which both grounds the score, avoiding pastichey-sketch like songs, but also feels like a missed opportunity. Still, the score is abundantly smart and surprising, despite its subtlety, and Mr. Kellogg’s book and lyrics are well-crafted and humorous, if occasionally swallowed by their own sweetness.
The six member ensemble cast is appropriately zany, performing the material with gusto and a heavy, infectious dose of musical comedy reverie. Of note are Mr. Ryan’s highly physical comedy and booming vocals, Ms. Molina’s Lucille Ball-like clowning, and Mr. Wyman’s devilish villainy—but all are superb.
With direction and choreography by Bill Castellino, “Desperate Measures” transfers well from the sub-basement of the York Theatre Company to the basement of New World Stages. Maybe someday it will get above ground. For now, theatregoers in search of a joyful escape from the horrors of the news—and the heat of the summer—can find good solace in this Wild West musical gem.
Bottom Line: “Desperate Measures” is a smartly crafted new musical (very) loosely inspired by the central plot of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”, set in the Wild West in the late 1800s. A musical comedy guilty pleasure that is fun and charming, this show offers a perfect, joyful escape from the horror of the daily news.