Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
Click HERE to see production photos.
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s Problem Plays. (Last year Shakespeare & Company presented another of the Problem Plays – All’s Well That Ends Well – in the Founders’ Theatre, and trust me, it was a problem.) But when I was studying Shakespeare in high school and college these plays were called the Romances, and I like that classification better, especially for Measure for Measure because it is quite romantic. You get three happy couples at the final curtain. Granted, along the way you get a severed head in a bag and a novice nun’s virtue used as a bargaining chip for that head, but in the end its really very romantic.
I have always been interested in writers’ full canons of work and a great champion of the underdog, which is why my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta is “Princess Ida.” Everyone knows Hamlet but how many people know Pericles? I had a great time in college reading all of Shakespeare’s obscure works, of which there are several, and I selected “Measure for Measure” as my favorite. At that same time, in 1976, the New York Shakespeare Festival staged the play with Meryl Streep as Isabella. I missed it. Who knew my next opportunity to see a production of this play would come 33 years later?
Even without Meryl Streep, it was worth the wait.
Apparently, I am not the only person who likes Measure for Measure because Shakespeare & Company reports that ticket sales for this bare bones Lunchtime Shakespeare production on the Elayne P. Bernstein stage featuring ten young actors from the Company’s Center for Actor Training’s Performance Intern Program are brisk.
Chances are you are not familiar with the plot of Measure for Measure, so I will give you a brisk outline. The Duke of Vienna (Tom O’Keefe) decides to step down from his duties, and deputizes Escalus (Michael Dix Thomas) and Angelo (Gabriel Portuondo) to rule in his stead. Angelo turns out to be a strict ruler, and sentences a young man named Claudio (Ross Bennett Hurwitz) to death for getting his beloved Juliet (Alison Novelli) pregnant out of wedlock. This is literally a technicality because, while they haven’t had a church wedding, the couple are “handfasted,” a public commitment to marry that was recognized as a legal marriage in Elizabethan times.
Claudio urges his friend Lucio (Nathan Wolfe Coleman) to go to his sister Isabella (Emily Harburg), who is about to take her vows as a nun, and ask her to plead his case before Angelo. This she does, but the deal Angelo offers her is not to her liking – her virginity in exchange for her brother’s life.
It happens that the Duke, disguised as a Friar, becomes privy to all these machinations, and he arranges a plot with the Provost (Emily Karol) of the jail where Claudio is being held and Angelo’s jilted fiancée Mariana (Poornima Kirby) to trick Angelo into believing that Isabella has accepted his offer, and fulfilled her part of the bargain.
This is Shakespeare, and so we must have our clowns. Mistress Overdone, a brothel Madame (played by Portuondo in drag), Pompey (Aaron Sharff), a bawd and barman in her employ, Elbow (Karol in drag), a constable full of malapropisms, Barnardine (Thomas) a drunken cellmate of Claudio’s, Abhorson (Coleman), and Froth (Hurwitz) scamper about doing foolish things from time to time, establishing Angelo’s Holier-Than-Thou morality which in turn brings his indecent proposal to Isabella and rejection of Mariana (it seems she became much less attractive as soon as her dowry was lost at sea) all the more heinous.
Quick, everybody name a politician who has held everyone else to a high moral standard while making fast and loose in his or her own private life? Maybe someone who has decried homosexuality from the rooftops only to be caught engaging in questionable activities in an airport men’s room? Or someone who denounced adultery and then snuck off to cavort with another woman? (Notice how all these people seem to be male? We women don’t rise to such high rank as often, but we are also much smarter and don’t get caught!)
Some things never change, and I think one reason Measure for Measure appeals to a modern audience and sells tickets is because we recognize these characters and we understand them. When Isabella threatens to expose Angelo, he tells her, as men have told women for millennia, that he will deny everything and no one will believe her. Same old same old. Isabella and Angelo, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. There is nothing new under the sun.
So the ending, when the Duke reveals himself and justice is served, is very satisfying. If you think about it, he could have revealed himself and set everything right about 90 minutes earlier, but then there wouldn’t be this great story to enjoy.
Suspense. That’s what Measure for Measure has that other Shakespearean plays lack. Every time you think things are on the right track they get derailed again. Oh no! How will saintly Isabella get out of this one? Where will the Duke get that severed head he needs? Will Lucio ever shut up? Because we are not overly familiar with the play, the plot twists really are exciting. And that Shakespeare guy, he creates great characters and dialogue you know. Measure for Measure has it all: “...tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.”
There are ten actors on the stage. Ninety percent of them are wonderful. Portuondo, the only Equity actor in the cast, is just dreadful. He is completely flat as Angelo, a character we should love to hate, and he isn’t even funny in drag. Now that takes a real lack of acting skills since a guy in a dress is usually a sure-fire audience-pleaser.
Considering that Angelo is one of the key characters in the play, this is a very unfortunate situation. Hagburg’s Isabella reacts with appropriate horror to Angelo’s proposition, but since Portuondo exudes no threat or sense of evil, you wonder what all the fuss is about. He’s not up to the job and he tells you so right in Act I, scene i:
“Let there be some more test made of my metal,
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamp’d upon it.”
So what you have is a fine production with a badly miscast central role. But the rest of the cast do what any good troupers must do, they get on with the show, and if that means Angelo becomes the least interesting person on stage, so be it. We will speak no more of him.
David Demke has given his young cast plenty to do to fill the empty stage on which they perform. It is greatly to their credit that, with only one rolling staircase and some changeable flags and drapes on the back wall of the Bernstein, they create a whole world and all the people in it.Kelly Marie Schaeffer has designed flexible, colorful costumes (I would KILL for those purpley-blue suede shoes Mariana was wearing!) that enable the many quick changes to be made smoothly.
Hagburg exudes cherubic blonde innocence as Isabella, and flushes prettily in all her emotional scenes. Kirby is her match in solemn brunette beauty, and Novelli floats about in her pseudo-Elizabethan maternity frock with beatific serenity. These are strong, intelligent women, secure in their sexual choices. They make Ophelia, who is literally driven mad by the conflicting virtuous claims of chastity or marriage, look like a simpleton. What a pity the other interesting female role is wasted on Portuondo.
O’Keefe is a handsome and likable hero as the Duke. Demke has him play his final scene with Isabella tenderly, so that her ultimate choice seems natural, and not like a capitulation.
Hurwitz sings Ian Milliken’s songs nicely on several occasions. He is all juvenile charm as Claudio and an hilarious fool as Froth. Sharff brings plenty of welcome comic relief as Pompey, and Karol is a hoot in her broad portrayal of Elbow.
If I were you, I would carve out an afternoon and go see this production. Measure for Measure isn’t one of Shakespeare Bad Plays, like Alls’ Well...” or Timon of Athens, its an egregiously overlooked play. And you wouldn’t want to make my mistake, miss your chance, and have to wait three decades or so to see it, now would you?
Shakespeare & Company's production of Measure for Measure will be performed through September 5 at 12:45 p.m. in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Kemble Street campus in Lenox, MA. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for children 10 and up. All curtain times at 12:45pm. Press opening is July 18. Tickets are $16 to $24.
Patrons are invited to purchase specially prepared lunches and enjoy them on the terrace overlooking the Dottie and Stephen Weber Wetlands Garden or in the comfortable Bernstein Theatre Lobby. Boxed lunches (tuna salad, turkey, or veggie sandwich; apple; cookie; bottled water) should be ordered in advance from the Box Office for $7. Lunches are provided by S&Co.’s resident chef, Peter Mathis of Bountiful Harvest Catering in Pittsfield (413-281-7345). Lunches are available for pick-up in the Bernstein Lobby at noon. Click HERE to purchase your boxed lunch.
The Bernstein is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, Senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009