Review: Mr. Angelo

It’s easy to do the right thing when the right thing is obvious and easy, but how do you know what the right thing to do is when all of your choices seem evil and the best that you can do is to choose the least of them? This is the dilemma faced by Isabelle Stephens, a Methodist pastor at the center of Theatre Verity’s production of Mr. Angelo, a contemporary reworking of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure written by Daniel A. Tarker and directed by M.E. Graham.

The story begins in a jail cell where Isabelle (Emmatrice Devan) confronts her brother Clay (Aaron Key), who has just been arrested for statutory rape after impregnating his 16 year old girlfriend, Julie. Clay is dismissive of the charges against him–he’s only four years older than Julie, after all, and they are in love–and Isabelle’s first task is to convince him of the seriousness of his situation. Once she succeeds, she faces the first of an unending series of tough choices: should she use her influence to help her brother try to avoid prosecution or should she leave him to face a fate she seems to think he deserves?

Once she finally agrees to meet with the prosecutor, the odious Mr. Angelo, Isabelle faces still more difficult decisions and every choice she makes leads to still more choices, each more repugnant to her moral center than the last. There are no easy outs in Mr. Angelo, no simple solutions that neatly cure all ills. As the play progresses and Isabelle responds to the pressures put on her by her brother, by Julie, by Mr. Angelo, by a secret benefactor, and by an unlikely and not entirely willing ally, she finds her initial moral certainty dissipating into anxiety and doubt. Once resolute in her beliefs about good and righteousness, Isabelle finds herself wracked by doubts, pushed in this direction by everyone she encounters, all of whom urge her to compromise her lofty and rigid ideals for the sake of what they each consider a more important cause.

Mr. Angelo’s got an ulterior motive in prosecuting Clay and the deal he offers Isabelle is outrageously wrong, but no one she interacts with has motivations that are entirely pure and selfless. Clay and Julie both point out that their baby’s life will be ruined along with Clay’s if he goes to prison, but neither seems mature enough to ensure that the baby’s life won’t be ruined if he doesn’t go to prison and Julie seems to see her pregnancy as a chance to get away from the parents she thinks are too stern. The shadowy figure who offers Isabelle a shot at gaining an upper hand over Mr. Angelo refuses to identify herself or explain her reasons for getting involved. Marie, whom Isabelle is led to, is another of Mr. Angelo’s machinations whose conflicting emotions make her motivations suspect as well.

Isabelle is a tough character to like, at least at first; Emmatrice Devan deserves applause for the skillful way she slowly, subtly humanizes Isabelle as she navigates her treacherous journey. Her agony as she is forced to confront the notion that sometimes there is no one true path is palpable. Alysha Curry and Jesse Putnam provide standout performances: she as the sometimes awkward but genuinely charming Julie, struggling to cross the divide from child to adult with as much grace as she can muster; and he as the oily Mr. Angelo whose got some deep-set issues of his own. It’s hard work keeping a bad guy as villainous as Mr. Angelo from sliding into characterize but Putnam keeps him on the human side. The cast use the sparse set effectively, convincingly inhabiting a variety of locales with only a few simple props. Some of the scene transitions could be smoother and some of the dialogue (particularly some of Julie’s) comes closer than necessary to being a bit too theatrical, but Mr. Angelo is a thoughtful, engaging play well worth seeing.

With Lyn Coffin as Georgia Duke and Kara Thornes as Maria.

Mr. Angelo continues at Odd Duck Studio (1214 – 10th Ave, on Capitol Hill) Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 until February 7. Advance tickets at Brown Paper Tickets.

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