Tali Friedman and Benjamin Rosen in Measure for Measure(Photo: Karen Detrick)
Tali Friedman and Benjamin Rosen in Measure for Measure
(Photo: Karen Detrick)
When the students showed up for the first day of Nona Shepphard's Acting Shakespeare course at London's Royal Acadamy of Dramatic Arts, they could never have known it was only the beginning of a long journey: First, a journey through the text of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a dark comedy (or is it an exceptionally funny tragedy?) from 1603; next, a journey to the London stage, as Shepphard directed the student actors in a production of the show at the GBS Theater in July 2001; and, finally a journey to New York, where the newly minted Acting Shakespeare Company is now making its American debut with that same production.

Measure for Measure was a perfect fit for this particular group of students--15 of them, representing seven different countries of origin--and that's no coincidence. "One of the things that I like to do when I look at a group [of students] is, I don't choose a play until I've met them and worked with them for a bit," says Shepphard, a freelance playwright and director with a regular autumn gig teaching acting at RADA. "This is a very interesting play: it has questions of politics and sexuality and morality that are relevant, and it talks about religious fundamentalism, which is obviously relevant as well. When I met this group, there was just something about certain actors that drew me to think they could play Angelo and the other roles. The play is full of drama and emotion and frenzy, and I thought they could really get their teeth into it and explore it." It worked, and the class-turned-cast was too pleased with the London production to let their Measure go by the wayside. Some serious fundraising and one long logistical nightmare later, they're installed in the theater at 45 Below Bleecker through May 5.

"It's great to be doing the show in New York," says Demetrius Martin, who plays Angelo in the production and is one of the show's producers. "Although, in a way, it's insane to start a non-profit theater in August, schedule your first show in April of the following year, and expect to do all the paperwork necessary. We also had to deal with Equity rules; four of us in the cast are union members, so we had to get a contract that suited us."

Perhaps the only thing that matches the difficulty of remounting the production is the complexity of the show itself. Under Shepphard's guidance, the roles in this Measure for Measure are cast with multiple actors. For example: Tali Friedman, an Israeli-born New Yorker and another of the producers, essays the role of Isabella...and so do two other people. "Yes, the three of us play Isabella, and we also have two Angelos and three Dukes," Friedman explains. "I like that a lot as an actor, and also as far as the storytelling goes."

Garth Hewitt and Joe Paulik in Measure for Measure
(Photo: Colleen Dougherty)
Garth Hewitt and Joe Paulik in Measure for Measure
(Photo: Colleen Dougherty)
"It's kind of making a virtue of necessity, really," says Shepphard of this unusual method of casting. "When they're taking the course, I want to make sure that the actors get to do a lot of work with their characters. Obviously, there aren't enough big parts to go around, so I often triple-cast roles, and it becomes very interesting to see how I can work that. Three actors are sometimes on stage in the same role at the same time, working together in a sort of seamless way. I think audiences have found that quite intriguing. Often, you can get different aspects of a character more clearly than you could just with one person. You can also make some interesting pictures. For example, there's a big moment in the play where Angelo, who is this tyrannical ruler of the city, falls in love--or in lust--with this young, novice nun. In our production, he is surrounded by three actresses in a kind of religious image."

Though it may sound as if multiple casting could lead to confusion on the part of the audience, Tali Friedman feels that, if anything, the plot and characters of Measure for Measure have been clarified by this approach. "The play is very accessible to people because of the way that it's directed and the way it's cast," she says. "Even my mom, who is Israeli and doesn't really understand the language, got the story."