Desperate Measures

by Maya Phillips

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 2, 2017

Desperate Measures

What does one do with one of Shakespeare's problem plays? In The York Theatre Company's "Desperate Measures," directed by Bill Castellino, the answer is to make it into a musical comedy.

Shakespeare meets songs meets the Old West? It may sound a bit curious at first, but the Bard's works have proved to be nothing if not infinitely adaptable; the real question is how one may deal with the tonal problems at the root of the source material itself, "Measure for Measure." A farce full of sex jokes, death sentences and long-winded discussions on morality, "Measure for Measure" famously hobbles between the comedic and the tragic (though ultimately must be called a comedy, as we end in a series of clumsily arranged marriages). "Desperate Measures" circumvents that issue by condensing the play, consolidating characters and going all in on the comedy.

The show opens with Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan), a hopeless but harmless ne'er-do-well, jailed and set to hang after killing a man in a bar fight. The noble Sheriff Martin Green (Peter Saide) seeks out Blood's sister, a soon-to-be nun named Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), to get her to try to convince the villainous Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber to release Johnny. But when the governor demands that Susanna relinquish her chastity in exchange for her brother's life, the sheriff hatches a plan involving a local saloon girl named Bella Rose (Lauren Molina) and a drunken, Nietzsche-quoting priest (Gary Marachek) to set things straight.

"Desperate Measures" attempts to fix the tonal ambiguity of Shakespeare's original play by fully embracing the comedy of the show and dropping all else (e.g., broken engagements, forced engagements, abandoned pregnant prostitutes, decapitations, etc.), going so far out into the opposite direction that the whole show revels in its camp and exaggerated tropes.

From the stage backgrounds and props -- cartoony cacti and pun-filled signs -- to the characters themselves, each his or her own stock type, the show plays out like a Sunday morning made-for-TV comedy: cute but predictable and unfortunately not as funny as it tries to be. And that's just it -- "Desperate Measures" tries desperately hard, but you can feel that strain from some of the forced gags and physical humor, as well as the dialogue, which utilizes strict, Dr. Seuss-style end rhyme.

The score, full of songs also meant to be more cute than useful in the scheme of the show, is mostly forgettable and doesn't always do justice to the vocal talents of the cast. Degerstedt's controlled, crystal-clear voice rings through in "Look in Your Heart" and "What Is This Feeling," while Ryan and Saide have their impressive moments in "Good to Be Alive" and "Stop There," respectively. And Wyman deserves praise for simply being able to pronounce his character's ridiculous mouthful of a name, in song, in an equally absurd German accent.

Though "Desperate Measures," by simplifying and focusing on the humor, manages to make more sense of its characters' actions and lead them more organically to their inevitable nuptials, the result isn't particularly unique or surprising. But that isn't to say there's nothing in the show for fans of Shakespeare or musicals or farces that take place in the old West; the seams show and the jokes sometimes land flat, but even when it pushes too hard, it's still endearing, rhymes and knee-slaps be damned.

"Desperate Measures" runs through October 29 at the York Theatre at Saint Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y. For information or tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit yorktheatre.org.