One of Shakespeare’s "problem plays," Measure For Measure can be hard to stomach for modern audiences. Protagonists of questionable character, unresolved moral issues, and a plot that forces itself to end with everyone getting married, can make Measure… a problematic theatrical experience. The plot centers on the Duke of Vienna, who takes leave of his post in order to let a temporary regent enforce a crackdown of Vienna’s morality laws. The new guy, Angelo, is a prude who promptly orders all dens of iniquity torn down, then orders the execution of Claudio, a man who’s committed the crime of impregnating a woman to whom he is not married. This leads to much scheming to get Claudio acquitted, and Angelo exposed as a hypocrite (not to mention liberal cannibalizing of Shakespeare’s other works, such as the bedroom-switch scheme from All’s Well…, a lengthy trial scene a la Merchant…, plus a wacky constable similar to Dogberry from Much Ado…).
Director John Hurley chose to stage the play tennis-court-style, with the playing area in the middle of the venue and the audience arranged on either side, in two very long rows. This resulted in much neck craning, and a good chance that at least one part of the stage would be obstructed for any seat in the house. The unusual setup did prove to be effective in recreating throne-room sets, where the Duke sat on the raised stage at one end, with the long playing area stretched out before him.
The first act was played mostly straight, going for the dramatic rather than comedic. In fact, most of the humor was left to Joseph Mathers in the role of Elbow, the cuckolded constable. In the second act the comedic elements were much stronger, and Mathers returned as a zany executioner (with a Peter Lorre accent), along with Timothy Cox as a boisterous prisoner who guzzled ale even as he was being dragged away to be executed for his lechery.
Film buffs might recognize the female lead Anna Chlumky from her days as a child star (she played Macaulay Culkin’s eponymous girlfriend in My Girl, among other roles). All grown up now, Chlumksy was a fine ingénue in the role of Isabella and handled the Shakespeare very well. The cast (even those who weren’t movie stars) were generally strong, with Hank Davies as the Duke holding things together, along with Gus Schulenburg as Angelo.
The chosen time period of modern day was mostly reflected in the costumes (coordinated by Amy Backnner). Some elements of Shakespeare’s time could be seen in the costumes, though, such as friar robes and executioner outfits. Set design (Brian Smallwood) kept the long but narrow stage mostly empty, with a throne at one end and a desk at the other, but the stage was dressed up a bit with tapestries to avoid looking too bare. Lighting was, of course, problematic due to the audience's being on both sides of the performers, but Holly M. Kirk’s design was a functional as possible under the circumstances.
A mark of the problem plays is that many of the moral questions raised by Shakespeare remain unanswered today, which can certainly be said of his 400-year-old yarn about a government trying to legislate morality.
(Also featuring Timothy Flynn, Sarah Fullen, Erin Jerozal, Cassandra Kassell, Alex Pappas, Vira Slywotzky, Alok Tewari, and Aaron Michael Zook.)
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Copyright 2004 Charles Battersby