Hoity Toity Corner: Measure for Measure Review

In middle school I absolutely detested Shakespeare, not solely because of public school English teachers but they had a great deal to do with it.  But in 9th grade that all changed and like all things in a young boys life it was because of a girl.  When I got to high school, there was this girl who I thought I was in love with; I say thought because the only things I knew about her was that she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, and remains so to this very day and she really really loved Shakespeare.  So instead of doing the smart thing and meeting her I decided I would read every piece of Shakespeare I could get my hands on.  I started with the comedies because I assumed comedies would be obviously be far better than tragedies (still a 14 year old idiot) and also I knew her favorite play was a comedy.  After I finished the big titles in the comedy department: All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream I moved on to the tragedies.  Of course starting with the ones everyone knows, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello.  After I had shoved all the Shakespeare into my face I had heard of I started on the rest of the list.  Nearly a year later without realizing it I had read every comedy, tragedy, history, problem play, and sonnet I could find.  As of today the only plays I have not read are King John, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry VIII.  I’m not exactly sure when it stopped being about making sure we had something to talk about when, not if, we started dating (I would like to remind the reader that when it comes to pretty girls little boys are idiots… the dumbest) and when I just fell in love with Shakespeare.  To this day I’ll watch pretty much any Shakespeare performance, film based on a Shakespeare play, or read any book about Shakespeare.

So when I say I read Measure for Measure and didn’t like it that’s saying a whole lot, not many Shakespeare plays that I don’t like.  And when I say that today’s performance of Measure for Measure at the Shakespeare Theater was one of the best theater performances I’ve ever seen it’s also saying a whole lot.  I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare, it’s easy to put on a good Hamlet, just make sure your lead actor can control the stage and when you’re cutting that four hour beast down make sure you don’t take anything important out; Othello, I could direct a watchable Othello everyone loves a good racially tense story of jealousy and manipulation on the backdrop of a true love story.  Measure for Measure not so easy to put on, Desmond Davis and Bob Komar proved that tenfold.

Because I saw that Komar travesty it is clear to me that today’s triumph was more a success of Jonathan Munby (the director) and the outstanding cast than anything else.  I would warn you of spoilers but the plot is over 400 years old and today is closing day of the show and there’s almost a 150% chance it’s sold out so you’re not seeing it.

One of the best uses of minimal set design I’ve seen in a long time.

The show opens with a cabaret which if you haven’t read the play or if you’re unfamiliar with the plot might seem unrelated.  But I was immediately impressed when it was clear the cabaret was set in the same Vienna that Munby set Measure for Measure.  Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is set in a Vienna that has become so corrupt and vile that Duke Vincentio feels he can no longer enforce the laws he has put in place, namely those laws pertaining to premarital sex.  In the play his need to have someone else (Angelo the plays villain is the man he puts in charge) take over never made much sense to me.  In this version however the cabaret closes with Vincentio pushing the male prostitute he has been with to the ground and threatening him with a chair at which point he pays him and makes a call to Escalus which begins the play.  This move is brilliant, it adds a silent motivation to the Duke’s inexplicable actions.  Duke Vincentio is an unmitigated idiot in the play and while this fear of a “lascivious” thought does not explain all of his actions it certainly explains why he feels he has to leave the office and disguise himself as the both holy and purely nonsexual position that is the a friar.

While Duke Vincentio is definitely the one of the fools in the play and an extraordinarily foolish one at that, Lucio is certainly a fool in his own right putting Osrich, Othello’s Clown, Feste, Touchstone, and The Gravediggers to shame in his ability to spew massive amounts of nonsense and in the play he is less funny and more irritating.  In this staging they cut enough of his lines and Cameron Folmar plays him like the very best version of Nathan Lane and it’s pretty much perfect.  Speaking of perfect casting Daniel Neville-Rahbehn really outdid himself with Pompey and Angelo.  Pompey a pretty minor role as far as lines go really stole the show this time.

And Angelo, played by Scott Pakinson, is excellent.  Usually Angelo portrayed as a big overbearing man is much more suited to the 80’s high school movie villain look that Parkinson lends to the character.  And the scene everyone will remember leaving the theater is act two scene four when Angelo propositions Isabella with an opportunity to save Claudio’s life.  On the page it reads as a pretty benign scene but in all reality after seeing the intense, lust and hate filled staging it is clear that Shakespeare meant Angelo’s action in the scene to be far darker than they appear on the page.

The highlight of the evening for me though was the ending.  Isabella’s silence, one of the strangest moments in all of Shakespeare’s work is perfectly staged here.  I have heard that Isabella’s silence in the face of the Duke’s marriage proposal is usually staged as acceptance.  But acceptance always seemed like the least likely outcome especially considering her character throughout the play and Gretchen Hall (Isabella) plays the awkward exchange and inevitable rejection perfectly.

Long story short, everything from the acting and directing, to the scenery (courtesy of Alexander Dodge) and the lighting (props to Phillip S. Rosenberg) were outstanding.  My only problem with the play is that setting it in Nazi ruled Vienna, Austria seems strange to say the least.  Especially with the excess of emphasis on the lust filled and lascivious Vienna that was Shakespeare’s original setting.  Staging it in the strict socialist regime of Adolf Hitler seems both inappropriate and cliche, I can’t count the number of Shakespeare productions set in Nazi Germany.  But besides that small problem, outstanding production but I expected nothing less of the people of the Shakespeare Theater Company.

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