Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Measure for Measure is regarded as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." It is grouped with his comedies, but for most of its length, feels like a tragedy. Shakespeare designated it a "comedy" as it ends happily (more or less). A somewhat flippant rule of thumb for Shakespeare is, if it ends with multiple deaths, it's a tragedy. If it ends with multiple weddings, it's a comedy. The silver lining in the case of Measure for Measure is that it provides serious fodder for discussions of timely and weighty issues, but doesn't send its audience home in a despairing funk.
As Measure for Measure begins, the Duke of Vienna is setting out on a journey abroad and, in his absence, places his deputy Angelo in command. To establish his authority, Angelo adopts strict interpretation of a little-enforced law forbidding fornication. Vienna, it seems, has been rife with brothels and illicit sex. Angelo makes an example of a gentleman named Claudio, who has impregnated his lover Juliet. Claudio and Juliet wish to marry but Angelo forbids it, imprisoning both lovers and sentencing Claudio to the legal penalty: death.
Claudio sends word to his sister Isabel, who is about to take her vows as a novice at the convent, asking her to beg Angelo for leniency. While Isabel hates the act her brother is guilty of, she appeals to Angelo to show mercy. Angelo scoffs at her appeal to "condemn the fault but not the actor of it," yet he is aroused by her beauty and offers an unholy bargain: her virginity for her brother's life. Isabel is appalled and threatens to reveal his venal nature to the citizenry. Angelo counters that no one will believe the claims of a woman against a gentleman with an upstanding reputation. Isabel admits to herself that this is so: "To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?"
In truth, the Duke has not gone abroad, but disguised himself as a friar, his face concealed by his cowl, in order to see how justice is administered in his absence. He overhears Angelo's proposition to Isabel and offers her council to save both her brother and her honor. His plan entails telling Angelo that Isabel has consented, provided the act is done in the dark and in silence. Under these conditions, Mariana, who was once betrothed to Angelo, is substituted for Isabel, with Angelo none the wiser. When the Duke "returns" and Mariana reveals what has occurred, the Duke insists the law must be as strictly applied to the fornicator Angelo as it was to Claudio, measure for measure.
Using his endless supply of plot twists, Shakespeare brings this wrenching dilemma to a resolution that aligns with its "comedy" designationthat, and the inclusion of several humorous comic figures such as the fabulist Lucio, the constable Elbow and Bernadine, a prisoner too drunk to prepare for his own execution. Those do not erase the seriousness of the issues it raises, such as sexual predation of women, the folly of literal interpretation of the law, and the abuse of authority.
Director Kate Powers has cast many of the male roles with female actors, blurring easy lines of distinction so that the strikingly different roles and liberties accorded to men and woman appear all the more arbitrary. Powers directs this Measure for Measure briskly, with seamless entrances and exits, maintaining all the strands of the plot without any plodding. For the most part this is a virtue, though some actors, in speaking quickly, allow their words to be garbled.
This is never a problem for Ashe Jaafaru as Isabel. Jaafaru is an actor just entering the scene, who mightily conveys the turmoil within Isabel's soul as she weighs her love for her brother against her love for divine purity. Lucio tell Isabel, "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt." Through Jaafaru's committed performance we see Isabel overcome those self-doubts. Jaafaru's experience in the Great River Shakespeare Festival's apprentice program shows itself with her clarity of expression and expression of feeling.
Samantha Joy Singh is the duplicitous Angelo, played with subtlety and composure rather than by telegraphing sinister intent, making Angelo seem akin to some of our contemporary, self-righteous public figures. Charla Marie Bailey lacks stature early on as The Duke, rushing through his departure from Vienna, as if trying to make a quick getaway, but she projects warmth and wisdom as the faux Friar, making visible the Duke's growing awareness of injustices masquerading as justice. She comes into full strength in the Friar returns to form as the Duke in the play's conclusion.
Leonard Searcy stands out as Claudio, conveying the moral strength of a decent man who has been made the extreme "example" for behavior that has become commonplace. As Lucio, Meri Golden's takes the braggart's swagger and full-out Elizabethan accent too far. Golden's constant gyrating brings to mind the "wild and crazy guys" Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd played on "Saturday Night Live" decades past. Lynda H. Dahl, as elder statesman Escalus, is among those whose words are difficult to make out, but her tone and physical grace convey the character's moral certitude. Stephanie Ruas is splendid as the obedient but good-hearted Provost.
The physical production designed by Giuliana Pinto is spare but effective, with enough archways and a raised rear platform to accommodate the numerous entrances and exits, and making good use of the Gremlin Theatre's intimate thrust stage. The costumes are a mixed lot, with contemporary business clothes for the Duke, Angelo and Escalus, non-specific peasant wear for Isabel and Claudio, and for Lucio, faux gilded revelers' garb, matching Golden's out-sized performance.
Even though it was chosen to pinch-hit for another play, I commend Theatre Unbound for mounting Measure for Measure. Its depiction of political leadership that is both outspoken in its conservative agenda, yet licentious in personal behavior, aptly reflects our nation's current state. The pressure on women to compromise their own morality for the well-being of a man, and the difficulty women have had in bringing those pressures to light, is similarly receiving much current attention. The time is right, and a well-paced production marked by several powerful performances make it well worth seeing.
Measure for Measure, through April 8, 2018, at the Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: General admission - $22.00, seniors, students and Fringe button holders - $18.00. For information and tickets go to www.theatreunbound.com or call 612-721-1186
Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: Kate Powers; Set and Prop Design: Giuliana Pinto; Costume Design: Alexandra Gould; Lighting Design: John Leahy; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Fight Design: Travis Bedard; Stage Managers: Laini Devi and Jeni Long; Assistant Directors: J.K. Phillips and Travis Bedard; Production Manager: Mara St. Pierre; Technical Director: Brittany Pooladian.
Cast: Charla Marie Bailey (The Duke), Travis Bedard (Pompey/Varrius), Lynda J. Dahl (Escalus), Nicole Goeden (Mariana/Juliet/Bernadine), Meri Golden (Claudio), Ashembaga "Ashe" Jaafaru (Isabella), Delinda "Oogie" Pushetonequa (Mistress Overdone/Master Froth/Abhorson), Stephanie Ruas (Provost), Leonard Searcy (Claudio), Boo Segersin (Francisca/Elbow/Friar Peter), Samantha Joy Singh (Angelo).