A woman dressed in a tight corset dress struts across the stage, an injured hip lagging her steps. She passes a judge in a flowing robe who strides to center stage, chin held high and eyes steely as he watches the people around him.
A deep voice calls from the auditorium seats: “Keep your eyes on the horizon. Keep that halo of energy around your head. Keep it pulling you as you’re walking. Walking somewhere with purpose like you got somewhere to be. Get there.”
A young man, seemingly lost to the world, drunkenly waddles his way through the group collecting on stage, while a tall, friendly gentlemen confidently moves through the crowd wearing a faux fur coat straight from Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.”
The director calls again: “Everybody hits the wall together. At the same time.” On stage, the actors come to a sudden halt.
Several motionless minutes pass before the group suddenly explodes with motion once again.
The synchronicity between these colorful characters comes from the many hours these 12 Clark students have spent together, rehearsing for their upcoming performance of William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”
Rusty Tennant, director of the production, decided to close the 2015-2016 season with a contemporary adaption of “Measure for Measure” because he believes it addresses issues still relevant today.
The play follows the consequences of a duke’s decision to briefly give his power to a stringent judge named Angelo, in order to fight the moral corruption caused by brothels and drunks.
The plot focuses on Claudio, a man arrested and sentenced to death by Angelo for having premarital sex with his fiancé. Angelo attempts to strong-arm Claudio’s sister Isabella, an aspiring nun, into giving him her virginity in return for her brother’s life.
Shakespeare instructor James Finley noted how “sympathetic Shakespeare is to women in this play.” According to Finley, incorporating women’s suffering in the performance shows that Shakespeare was considering gender inequality.
Tennant agrees. “Here we are, 400 years after his death, and we’re still talking about it.”
From an authoritarian judge to a Shakespearean version of Rupaul to a dim-witted cop focused solely on sexual misconducts, the 13-piece cast is a rainbow of characters.
“The beautiful thing about Shakespeare is he detailed all the specific personalities we see all around us every day,” Tennant said. “I mean, people are people. Our surroundings change, but there’s always the geek. There’s always the power-hungry leader. There’s always the forlorn lover.”
Tennant said that, in order to reflect modern culture, several characters in Clark’s adaptation stray from their original gender and sexual identities.
Acting as Claudio’s flamboyant friend Lucio, theater major Philip Graves said he chose to interpret his character as someone either bisexual or gay.
Several other characters, including Elbow, a dim-witted policeman, and Barnadine, a prisoner sentenced to death alongside Claudio and the judge Angelo, are played by women.
Dani Neblock, who plays the judge, pointed out the stereotypical situations that are forced on women in the play. “It was difficult to essentially become a creepy old man, and touching on [Isabelle,]” Neblock said.
Neblock also said that it was difficult to portray such an emotionless character. She relates Angelo to professor Snape from Harry Potter.
According to Neblock, actors have also been working to learn Shakespearian language. With two Shakespearean dictionaries, the cast has “spent a lot of time going over the meaning of the text so we know what emotion to convey,” Neblock said.
Gene Biby, a theater instructor and the director of Clark’s winter production of “Avenue Q,” said when teaching Shakespeare to actors, there is a focus on “script analysis more than anything else.”
According to Tennant, the way students learn about Shakespeare outside of theater leaves a lot to be desired.
“We teach Shakespeare as if it’s a scholarly pursuit,” Tennant lamented. He said students often sit and read Shakespeare-like literature, instead of studying it through performance.
“Shakespeare wrote for the stage,” Finley said. “We tend to think of Shakespeare as a very cerebral thing, that people read the plays and look at them as literature. He wrote plays to be seen and heard by an audience.”
Finley said he is a “big believer in performance-oriented classes.” He incorporates video, acting and group reading to help students explore and enjoy Shakespeare.
Tennant, who also works as the Clark scene shop supervisor, has years of experience as an actor, director, designer and choreographer. He’s participated in hundreds of Shakespearean productions around the country, and is a regular participant in Portland theatre productions.
“I wanted to take advantage of his expertise,” Biby said. “Before he got another job somewhere else and moved on.”