‘Desperate Measures’ is a hoot and a holler at Constellation Theatre

Set in the Wild West and inspired by 'Measure for Measure,' the madcap musical is unabashedly comedic.

It might seem, at first, like too obvious a solution.

Scholars and theatermakers have tried for centuries, after all, to fix the issues that make Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure a “problem play.” The play is one of paradoxes—it’s both a comedy and a tragedy, its tone is funny and dark, it relies on simplistic plot devices to speak to complex themes, it aims low and high at the same time.

In their loose adaptation of the play, Peter Kellogg and David Friedman fixed the paradox simply by removing the tragic elements, the dark tones, and the complex themes. Now set in the Wild West, the musical Desperate Measures is all comedy. It’s a simple solution, really—no paradox, no problem.

Still, in the wrong hands, Desperate Measures could end up aiming too high or too low. Luckily, the production at Constellation Theatre Company, now in performances through March 17, strikes the right balance, bringing out the best in this rip-roaring, hilarious musical.

Rebecca Ballinger (Susanna), Tyler Dobies (Sherrif Martin Green), Hunter Ringsmith (Johnny Blood), Audrey Baker (Bella), Greg Watkins (Governor), and Bobby Libby (Father Morse) in ‘Desperate Measures.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Set in the territory of Arizona at the turn of the 20th century, Desperate Measures follows a madcap effort to convince a strict law-and-order governor to grant a pardon to Johnny Blood, a cowboy who killed a man in a bar fight and is now set to be hanged in just two days. The governor agrees to grant the pardon, but only if Susanna, Johnny’s sister and a nun, sleeps with him, at which point the sheriff conceives of a hair-brained scheme to trick the governor.

If that all seems ridiculous, don’t worry—not only does the plot spiral into further absurdity, but the execution is equally ridiculous, by design.

The Wild West world portrayed is an extreme exaggeration of all the classic tropes of the genre. Samuel Klaas’ detailed set transforms the Source Theater’s blackbox space into a stylized frontier town, fitting a jail, saloon, stage-within-a-stage, and band into an intimate area. The only thing missing is a tumbleweed.

The characters are each a trope, as well, and each seems to have a distinct accent (which somehow works, with the exception perhaps of the governor’s quickly abandoned German accent). To top it all off, the dialogue is delivered entirely in rhyming couplets—most of which hew closer to Dr. Seuss than to Shakespeare.

There are many ways this combination of ingredients could go wrong, particularly if a director tries to take the show’s most ridiculous elements too far. Constellation’s founding artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman, though, has paid careful attention to take Desperate Measures’ wildest moments to the peak of hilarity, without tipping over the edge. The show is certainly a hoot and a holler, but not because it’s heedless.

That is most clear in songs like “It’s Getting Hot in Here,” which introduces the saloon girl, Bella. The song relies on sexual comedy, but this staging—including Nikki Mirza’s choreography—thankfully stops short of shock humor. The same could be said of the sheriff’s solo ballad, “Stop There,” a breakout moment for Tyler Dobies, or the twisted love song “Just for You,” a hilarious duet between Bella and Johnny (Hunter Ringsmith) and easily the musical’s standout number.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Audrey Baker (Bella) and Tyler Dobies (Sherrif Martin Green); Audrey Baker (Bella); Greg Watkins (Governor) and Julia Link (Susanna); Hunter Ringsmith (Johnny Blood) and Audrey Baker (Bella), in ‘Desperate Measures.’ Photos by DJ Corey Photography.

In fact, the entire cast’s comedic performances, and in particular their ability to work off of each other, deserve a shoutout. Opening night featured understudies in the roles of Susanna and Bella—Julia Link and Audrey Baker, respectively—both of whom worked seamlessly with the rest of the cast. The performances, under Stockman’s direction, make good on Constellation’s promise of “epic theatre in an intimate space” with a genuinely hysterical production.

And yet, for how consistently hilarious this musical is throughout, it might be unfair to say Desperate Measures, and this production of it, has truly stripped Measure for Measure of all its thematic ambitions. To be sure, this musical doesn’t have anything groundbreaking or overly deep to say, but it does speak to some higher themes.

Susanna and Bella, for example, learn from each other new ideas about femininity and female agency. And it’s taken as a given that Johnny Blood’s specific circumstances mean he shouldn’t be hanged. There is a thematic foundation to Desperate Measures in the idea that morality is not as simple as following rules and justice is not as simple as following laws.

In its communication of these themes via such an unabashedly comedic musical, Desperate Measures may actually be just as much a paradox as Measure for Measure. At least produced by Constellation, though, that isn’t a problem.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Desperate Measures plays through March 17, 2024, presented by Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC (between 14th and T). Purchase tickets ($20 to $55) online or by calling the Box Office at 202-204-7741.

First responders, active or retired military personnel, teachers, and students are eligible for
a 50% discount on regularly priced tickets. Visit ConstellationTheatre.org/special-offers for discount codes and more information.

Credits for the cast and creative team are here (scroll down).

COVID Safety: Masking is optional on all shows except Saturday matinees. See Constellation’s entire Company Safety Plan here.

Constellation Theatre to mount new musical ‘Desperate Measures’ (news story, January 29, 2024)

Desperate Measures
Book and Lyrics by Peter Kellogg
Music by David Friedman
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman


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