Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure is one of a number of plays, revised by the ever-maturing playwright up until his death, that do not fit neatly into the classical subcategories of the Shakespearean canon—tragedies, comedies, and histories; in modern terms, it is a dark satire that focuses on the use and abuse of power and sexual politics.
The clever Viennese Duke Vincentio (Robert Sicular) decides to test his deputy, Angelo (Chip Persons), by temporarily entrusting him with control of the city. The Duke then disguises himself as a friar and observes the events that ensue, finally intervening and dramatically setting the situation aright,1 all the while musing in iambic pentameter blank verse on the vagaries of human conduct.
|Lenne Klingaman as Isabella|
and Chip Persons as Angelo
Photo: Glenn Asakawa
for CU Communications
In the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's current production, the in-the-round setting (a substantial portion of the audience sits on the stage of the indoor University Theatre, opposite those in the auditorium), the costume choices (modern business suits for the hierarchy), the abstract scenery (indistinct shapes of fabric and wooden triangles drift overhead), and the metaphorical props (choreographed red umbrellas and a muddy public address system) unnecessarily complicate, rather than elucidate, an already multilayered and subtle script.
Director Scott Williams' casting works well, though, and offers a welcome counterpoint to the misguided visuals. Sicular's stature and gravitas, Jovian by any measure, provides a true sense of the noblesse oblige of the period, personifying the authority upon which the Duke's power is based. Persons' impeccably maintained dour visage is a mask worthy of commedia dell'arte, a favorite conceit of the Bard. His catharsis in the last scene delivers the redemptive message of the play.
Left to his own devices by the Duke's ruse, Angelo sentences Claudio (Nick Henderson) to death for impregnating his longtime betrothed Juliet (Emily Van Fleet). When Claudio's sister, the novitiate Isabella (Lenne Klingaman), begs Angelo for her brother's life, Angelo names his price: her chastity for a pardon.
Henderson's Claudio cuts a noble and well-spoken figure. Klingaman's well-grounded approach is a refreshing take on the often etherealized Isabella. Stephen Weitz's pompous Pompey is the ultimate huckster, charmingly insinuating himself to all comers. Van Fleet is particularly moving as Mariana, Angelo's maligned former intended.
Shannon McKinney's lighting, especially the subtle shadings assigned to the principals—the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella—is astute. If only the rest of the overall design elements were as supportive of the action. Yet, Williams' blocking, although compromised by the circular staging, is often rewarding, such as when he cross-hatches several scenes that inform each other and push the tempo.
Another original twist that works is the final exchange between Isabella and the Duke, where Williams provides us with a compelling bookend to the Duke's initial quest for justice and mercy by conjuring an image-the Duke alone, looking heavenward, bathed in a progression of celestial light, holding the crucifix that Isabella has just given him-that weaves together the redemptive threads of the tale.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Measure for Measure runs through August 8th, in repertory with King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew, The Fantastiks, and Our Town. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.
1The "bed trick" is one of the many biographical references that appear in this play and, indeed, throughout the canon. As detailed elsewhere on this site (see The Shakespearean Authorship Question in Essays and Links), we believe that the "authorship question"—Who wrote the Shakespearean plays and sonnets?—has been solved far beyond any reasonable doubt: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the author. One of the biggest issues in de Vere's life was his early judgment that his wife, Anne Cecil, had given birth to their first child at least ten months after de Vere had last had sex with her. De Vere harbored this belief for many years, and it certainly contributed to Anne's early death, and the death of their son (as Hermione and Mamillius in The Winter's Tale). Later, de Vere was convinced by Anne's father, William Cecil (Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's chief minister for the entirety of her long reign), that de Vere was the victim of a bed trick. De Vere came to accept this view. The penance for his rash judgment forms a central theme in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale (where the playwright is finally redeemed), and appears in other works, such as here, as a plot device.