Shakespeare's Measure for Measure
In case you've forgotten, Measure for Measure is the play in which Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, unsure of the efficacy of his soft leadership, temporarily cedes his duties and authority to his deputy, Lord Angelo, pretending to have to go abroad. Instead, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and remains in Vienna in order to secretly observe the course of events in his absence. Angelo proves to be a strict, cruel ruler, enforcing existing laws involving morality (i.e., the outlawing of brothels) which the Duke had ignored.
In the course of consensual sex, Claudio has impregnated Juliet, to whom he is betrothed. For this pre-marital assignation, Angelo has arrested Claudio and ordered his execution. Claudio gets word of his situation to his virtuous sister, Isabella, just as she is entering a nunnery. He is asking her to intercede with Angelo on his behalf. At first, Angelo turns a deaf ear to her plea, but then tells Isabella that he would change his mind if she would have sexual intercourse with him. Isabella refuses him. When she tells Claudio of her refusal, he initially supports her decision, only to quickly change his mind.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey very accurately bills Measure for Measure as a "mercurial masterpiece." It is both a serious play and an elaborate jest. It not only mixes drama and comedy, but there are scenes, particularly in the world of the brothels, which are phantasmagoric.
This production most interestingly emphasizes this dichotomy. The stunning scenic design by Bonnie J. Monte and Brian Ruggaber (ably abetted by the lighting design of Steven Rosen) has a phantasmagoric Asiatic design (you cannot help but notice it in the center stage double doors and the balcony suggesting structure above them, as well as in the lush pastels in the lighting and curtains). It is evocative of the bathhouse for the gods in the Hayao Miyazaki anime masterpiece Spirited Away. This aspect of the play is also emphasized in the costuming of the brothel clown Pompey and other denizens of the demimonde world. The chamber music played between each scene which is swift, frantic, and a bit atonal which adds to the fantastical elements (it is not credited and I could not identify it).
On the other hand, most of the costumes, the reading of the text, and the interpretation of Shakespeare's protagonists is quite traditional. Given the apparent depth of director Bonnie J. Monte's analysis of the text, I think that she has missed an opportunity to explore and reinterpret the role of Vincentio. There are so many contradictions in his character and behavior, and the elaborate and odd jests with which he resolves the situation are so bizarre, that I have long found that his character is not as saintly as usually described and played. This colorful character who takes such delight in cruelly running everyone through the paces is not a wan, unconfident saint. Vincentio may be sagacious and good, but he is also a cruelly mischievous Duke whose behaviors are difficult to reconcile. He should be having as much fun in his machinations as we are having in viewing them.
Bruce Turk (Vincentio), Erin Partin (Isabella) and Sean Mahan (Angelo) are solid in their interpretations of the leading roles. Among the large and fine featured cast, Katie MacNichol is vivid and moving as Mariana, Angelo's former fiancée; Greg Jackson is hilarious as Lucio, who, despite being a rogue, is loyal to the condemned Claudio; Richard Bourg is engaging as the frustrated Escalus; Lindsay Smiling projects the strength of the stalwart Provost; and Raphael North Thompson embodies a fantastical Pompey.
And, finally, director Bonnie J. Monte provides us with rarified delight in the nearly thirty minute long final scene (act five, actually). The phantasmagoric setting and costumes which she has infused into this Measure for Measure makes the boldness and whimsical nature of the humor which the Bard has infused into the climax of his morality play so abundantly manifest that it soars into the stratosphere of heady entertainment.
Measure for Measure continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 pm ; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Mats. Saturday and Sunday 2 pm) through August 26, 2012 at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare; directed by Bonnie J. Monte