"Measure for Measure" at Shakespeare Theatre Company

I won't lie to you, readers - Measure for Measure is not an easy play.  It's not easy to watch, it's not easy to stage, it's not easy to discuss, mainly because it has so many weird ethical points in it that can be somewhat divisive.  The Shakespeare Theatre Company, however, takes all of this and makes a really lovely production.

The theatre opened early for a cabaret-style pre-show featuring the cast, which was a ton of fun.  Chris Genebach, who played Pompey, schmoozed with audience members while Cameron Folmar (Lucio) played Emcee.  This fed straight into the first scene of the play, where the Duke (Kurt Rhoads) calls Angelo (Scott Parkinson) and tells him he'll be in charge while he (the Duke) is out of town (he doesn't actually go out of town - he disguises himself and hangs around to see what happens).  Pretty much immediately, Angelo starts really laying down the law.  He sentences Claudio (Avery Clark) to death for getting a girl pregnant out of wedlock.  When asked why he's going to such extreme measures, Angelo says he's making Claudio an example.  Claudio asks Lucio to find Isabella (Miriam Silverman), an almost-nun who also happens to be Claudio's sister.  He's sure she'll be able to sway Angelo into not killing him.  Lucio finds Isabella, and she goes before Angelo to plead her brother's suit.  Things begin to go awry when Angelo finds himself attracted to her.  He proposes a deal - if she has sex with him, he'll release her brother.  She, being a nun and valuing he chastity above all else, says no.  I've seen this play a few times, and I'll tell you, this was probably the scariest I've seen this go down.  There's usually some kind of physical scuffle between the two, but this one was violent and graphic and very obviously going down the rape path until Isabella fell to her knees and started to pray.  Angelo, who'd gotten out of much of his clothing (including a belt and suspenders, ugh), froze and watcher her for a few seconds.  He gathered his things and said one of the most horrifying lines of the play - Say what you can/My false o'erweighs your true.

Isabella collects herself and goes to tell Claudio, who is in prison, what happened, and about Angelo's deal.  Initially, Claudio is adamantly against her giving herself to anyone...but then he stats to think about it and realizes that death is a terrifying prospect.  They get in a huge fight, which the Duke, disguised as a friar, overhears.  The Duke then comes up with a very plan that sits very squarely in pretty much anyone's morally grey area: instead of Isabella having sex with Angelo, they'll get Mariana (Natascia Diaz) to do it instead, since she used to be engaged to him, and they'll make sure it's super dark so Angelo doesn't notice.  That way, Isabella stays a virgin and gets her brother back.  Everything goes according to plan... at least until Angelo orders Claudio killed anyway.  The Duke is with the Provost (Eric Martin Brown) at the prison when the decree comes down - and Angelo wants Claudio's head sent to him to make sure that he's really dead.  The Provost has long thought Angelo was wrong to put Claudio to death anyway, so he and the Duke send the head of a prisoner who died the night before who looks enough like Claudio to fool Angelo.

Right after, the Duke sends letters to Angelo saying that the Duke will be returning from his sabbatical in the next couple of days.  I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will tell you that the last scene is just a little bit insane in that wonderful Shakespearean way.  It's full of surprises and laughter and I can't in good conscience tell you what happens.  If and when you go see it, let me know in the comments what you think of the choices in that scene!

As much as I don't like the play itself, I was very impressed with this production.  I particularly enjoyed the very minimalist set.  The action bounces around a lot, and doesn't call for one big, lavish set.  Alexander Dodge, the set designer, used wheels to their utmost advantage.  They're on everything, from Angelo's huge desk to the flats used make the prison and the monastery and the nunnery.  The set changes are beautifully choreographed and executed flawlessly by members of the ensemble.  Overall, this is one of the best things I've seen from this company in a while.  Fairly often I've found that the director lets their vision of the show overrun the actual play itself, but not so in this case.  Though it's set in 1930s Germany instead of Vienna, it works nicely and doesn't feel shoehorned in.  It does run about 3 hours with one 15-minute intermission, so be prepared for that, but it really didn't feel that long as the cast keeps up a good pace.  It's not the most fun play in the canon, but I guarantee it'll make you think, and for that, I really recommend seeing it.

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Theatre Company
Lansburgh Theatre
4 stars
directed by Jonathan Munby
running through October 27, 2013


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