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Using "Measure for Measure" to discuss real world issues with your kids

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My high-schooler is well brushed up on his Shakespeare. (He brought the house down last year as Katherine in his 8th grade production of Henry V.)

So he seemed like the perfect target audience for The New Victory Theater's production of Measure for Measure, running from February 28, 2014 to March 16, 2014. While the show is recommended for children ages 13 and up, when we went on Sunday, March 2, I saw several younger kids in the audience, so it's up to parents to decide whether their child is ready to process what's on stage.

The six member Fiasco Company putting on this version of Measure for Measure doesn't dumb down the period language or sanitize the material. You've still got whorehouses and pimps and death penalties and a nun being rather bluntly propositioned to keep her philandering brother from the hangman's noose. Not exactly traditional kiddie fare.

The actors do an excellent job of conveying the story (though, just in case, a synopsis is also included in the program), and the minimalist set of mostly doors helps set the various scenes. (Though, for one sequence, when an invisible convict beats upon the Duke masquerading as a Friar and a pimp perfectly willing to be an executioner - like all Shakespeare plots, it makes sense in context - my son did note, "Ah, that's a particularly evil door!").

I've always been a big believer of the notion that even if you don't understand every word that's being said on stage, letting the poetry of Shakespeare wash over you is good for the brain (and the soul). But this particular play offers something more than mere pretty words. Prior to the performance, in their downstairs space, The New Victory hosted a workshop where the show's theme - laws that had long been ignored suddenly being enforced with deadly penalties - was explored vis-a-vis similar New York City ordinances.

For instance, did you know it's illegal in New York City to perform a a puppet show, ballet or any other entertainment out your window (technically, this includes Christmas lights)? That no more than two people may congregate on the street wearing masks, unless for the purpose of a costume party (what does this make Halloween? Or the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim)? That giving haircuts on a Sunday can cost you a fine (has anyone told SuperCuts)? That you can't keep a rhinoceros in your apartment? Or dye a bunny pink? (OK, not really sure why anyone would want to do those last two.)

The workshop, as well as the play, is an excellent introduction to talking with your child about just laws, unjust laws, disproportionately applied penalties, citizens' rights and the inevitable great abuse that comes with great power. Does the mayor have the right to decide what size sodas you can buy? Can the governor mandate what sort of education every child in his state must get? Can a president unilaterally start wars?

The New Victory's production of Measure for Measure plays some weekday evenings at 7 pm, Saturdays at 1 pm and 7 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm. Sign language interpreted performances, free pre-show interactive family activities, talk backs and scavenger hunts are offered on various days. Check the calendar for details.

In the meantime, come for the poetry, leave with something to think - and talk - to your child about.

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