Taffety Punk's Measure for Measure
Tafferty Punk is once again bringing DC an all-female production of Shakespeare. Last year they tackled the popular Romeo and Juliet. That time, it was more or less a gimmick, done in response to the Shakespeare Theatre’s all-male production at the same time. This time, they are doing the exercise for its own sake, and tackling one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex plays, and my personal favorite, Measure for Measure.
What’s with the all-female cast? Well, as artistic director Marcus Kyd explained in the curtain speech, it is simply to give the actresses in DC a chance to play roles normally unavailable to them. They are not trying to say anything; they are just doing the play. And that works. Like any well-done one-gendered Shakespeare production, you get used to the conceit and then you forget it, drawn instead into the world of the play and the characters. Choosing not to make any political gender statement is a valid one; though it does make me wonder why pick Measure for Measure, as it is a play that practically cries out for such statements, so much so that it just seems like a missed opportunity.
Why do I love Measure for Measure? Because the script requires a director to make choices. You can do A Midsummer Night’s Dream without making choices, but you cannot do Measure the same way. Even if you choose to present the play in a straightforward manner (or your interpretation of straightforward), as Lise Bruneau does here, that is a choice. The play gives us three complex, difficult characters that have been interpreted along an extreme range throughout the history of this play. Beatrice will always be Beatrice. We know who she is. Not so with the Duke of Measure for Measure. Each production must decide who he is. Is he a wise, benevolent ruler? Or a puppet-master, manipulating everyone and everything? Is Angelo evil and unforgivable? Or is he redeemable? Is Isabella the epitome of womanhood? Or is she a cold-hearted bitch? Or are the characters somewhere in the middle? I love seeing Measure for Measure, because I love seeing what actors and directors do with these characters.
Duke Vincentio leaves Vienna, and in his stead he leaves Angelo in charge, a man known for his moral uprightness. As soon as the Duke leaves, Angelo starts strictly enforcing all the laws, including one that prohibits fornication. Claudio and Juliet are betrothed, and Juliet is pregnant. Claudio is arrested and his day of execution set. Claudio has a sister, Isabella, who is about to become a nun. She goes before Angelo and pleads for mercy for Claudio. Angelo is taken with her and tells her that if she sleeps with him, he will release Claudio. Isabella refuses. The Duke has not actually left, but has been watching all this happen while disguised as a friar. He sets up a bed trick – Angelo had a fiancée once, Mariana, who he left after her dowry was lost at sea. Mariana sleeps with Angelo in Isabella’s place, but Angelo still orders Claudio’s execution. The Duke secretly saves Claudio, returns publicly, and all is revealed. The Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana, and then in the biggest WTF moment in all of Shakespeare, asks Isabella to marry him. Isabella does not speak, and so textually, we do not know what her answer is. This is another moment each production must decide how to handle.
I also find Measure for Measure fascinating because you never know who’s play it’s going to be. Will it be about the Duke and his interesting relationship with power? Will it be about the fall of Angelo? Or will it be about a young nun’s terrible choice between the life of her brother and the protection of her chastity?
Taffety Punk’s production belongs to Angelo, for several reasons. It’s a straightforward production, and Michelle Shupe is a straight-forward Duke. He is honest, reflective, thoughtful, but also strong and likeable. Shupe’s Duke fittingly acts as a foil to the rest of the wild and unsure characters in the play. It is a wholly positive characterization, well-done, and convincingly portrayed, which actually serves to throw more focus on the character of Angelo.
Secondly, Esther Williamson doesn’t seem up to Isabella. She lacks the passion and the grace that Isabella requires. I never got a sense of where this character was coming from, and as a result her struggle comes across as downplayed. This is also due to Bruneau’s straightforward direction, which does its best to preserve a happy ending, as weird as that may be. As a result, Isabella accepts the Duke’s marriage proposal after only slight hesitation. To be fair, I actually think Isabella is the hardest of the three characters to convincingly portray to a modern audience. And when you are asked to match your acting skills to those of Kimberly Gilbert, well, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
And that brings me to the third reason that this is Angelo’s production: Kimberly Gilbert, who is excellent in the role. She could certainly take on any man I’ve seen play the role! Gilbert’s characterization is clear and complex. Clear, because you understand who this man is. Complex, because he rises and falls, he changes during the course of the play, he learns things about himself that are painful to learn. Gilbert’s petite stature and youthful face give us a young Angelo, a man perhaps just at the beginning of his career as a political star. But Angelo is giving too much power too quickly, and this is his downfall. Gilbert’s Angelo is redeemable, a man who by the end of the play has faced the blackest places of his soul and is horrified by what he found there. Gilbert is especially electrifying in the second scene with Isabella. Here you can see Gilbert’s Angelo spinning out of control, as though he is holding himself together, but any second he could burst from his skin and explode.
The Punks have gathered a strong supporting cast, including Toni Rae Brotons as a greasy, sun-burned, gold-necklace-wearing Lucio, Kate Debelack as a gansta-pimp Pompey, Sheila Hennessey who successfully takes on the thankless older man role of Escalus, Suzanne Richard as the ignorant constable Elbow, and Tonya Beckman Ross as a eye-patched Mistress Overdone and also the dejected, eating-cereal-in-the-middle-of-the-day (we’ve all been there) Mariana.
Overall, it is a well-acted production that moves along at the right pace. I hope that Taffety Punk’s all-female Shakespeare production will become a staple of Washington theatre from many seasons to come. And maybe in future production, the T Punks will get a little bolder and explore the possibilities and effects of using an all-female cast in Shakespeare.
Through October 10