Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure has given directors fits over the years. It falls into a select group of Shakespearean works that old school scholars call "problem plays." Generally, the source of the problem is considered to be the mix of serious subject matter with absurd behavior—thus marking it as a dark comedy, to contrast it with the broader farces of the earlier canon—as if the aging playwright's shadings of mortality had somehow tainted the form. In the hands of artistic director Kent Thompson, however, the Denver Center Theatre Company's current production is a brilliant satire on permissiveness and religious hypocrisy.

Photo of Ruth Eglsaer as Isabella and John Hutton as Vincentio
Ruth Eglsaer as Isabella
and John Hutton as Vincentio
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Thompson chooses to keep the setting for the work in Vienna, but has moved the timeline forward three hundred years, to the turn-of-the-century when Freud's work was beginning to draw attention. The Church still held sway over many, and its patriarchic attitudes toward women dominated everyday life. Along with Freud, however, there was a growing undercurrent of self-examination and, under the influence of Western democracies, the desire for greater personal liberties.

Not only do these conditions echo the original setting, where the liberal reign of Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, has created tension between religious and humanistic forces, but they also serve to amplify the parallels with our own heated national debate between the so-called religious right and those who see themselves as defenders of the Bill of Rights.

Photo of (L to R) John Hutton as Vincentio and Sam Gregory as Lucio
(L to R) John Hutton as Vincentio
and Sam Gregory as Lucio
Photo: Terry Shapiro
John Hutton, whose resonant voice and confident craft previously made him an effective Shylock and Macbeth, here parlays his opportunity to stretch the resourceful Duke. Disguised as a priest, Hutton sets the tone for the play by contrasting the regal airs of state with the derring-do of an insurrectionist. Given the creative use of biblical symbolism employed by the playwright, the playful meddling of Hutton's Duke gives new meaning to contemporary liberation theology.

The foil for the Duke's plans to shake-up the social climate of the realm is Angelo, a man who represents himself and is perceived by many as a righteous example of Christian virtue and scholarship. From his introduction, when he accepts the temporary rulership of Vienna in the Duke's absence, to his demise in the miasma of hypocrisy, Brent Harris' Angelo is a detailed study of the effect of instinct on ideology. As Harris unfolds his well-paced revelation of Angelo's growing desire for Isabella, we see the desperation behind his excuses for behavior in himself that he had pronounced a deadly sin in Claudio (whom he has condemned to death for having premarital sex).

It falls to Isabella, a novice nun and sister to Claudio, to uphold the true Christ-like compassion and forgiveness. Ruth Eglsaer never wavers in conveying Isabella's spiritual conviction, even when she is led to believe that Angelo has committed the ultimate betrayal.

Photo of Ruth Eglsaer as Isabella and Brent Harris as Angelo
Ruth Eglsaer as Isabella
and Brent Harris as Angelo
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Two of the most morally compelling moments in the play—when the Duke proposes to Isabella that she accede to the fallen Angelo's devilish bargain (her virginity in trade for her brother's life), and when the Duke proposes marriage to her—are deftly directed by Thompson. In the former, he has Eglsaer's Isabella relieved to accept the Duke's "bed trick" (where Mariana, once-betrothed to Angelo, will substitute for her in the tryst)1; in the latter, at the final curtain, he has Isabella pause as she considers foregoing her vows of poverty and celibacy and, instead, taking wedding vows with the Duke. In plotting Isabella's arc thus, Thompson retains her believability, first by enabling her to abandon her absolute rigidity and deceive Angelo, and then, later, by forestalling the Duke's absurdly-timed, but attractive proposal.

Photo of G. W. Mercierís set
G. W. Mercierís set
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Leaving Isabella's final choice ambiguous, Thompson reconciles the play with contemporary sensibilities while delivering a statement on the marriage of spiritual and humanistic values. His premise is well-supported in the production's crafts, particularly the set and costume design by G.W. Mercier, whose Gustav Klimt-inspired motif offers a refined, soulful alternative to the heavy-handed and hollow religious branding that attempts to supplant it. (In a stunning case of life imitating art, the Associated Press carried an article on the heels of the opening stating that Klimt canvasses stolen by the Nazis were being returned to the descendants of the original owners. Given the Vatican's complicity with the Third Reich, the symbolism of the set couldn't be more apropos. Further, the extrapolation from the Nazi/Church alignment to the current fascist/fundamentalist axis is plain to see, confirming the universality of the playwright's message and the director's adaptation. To Thompson's credit, he sees no need to telegraph the contemporary parallels, letting us fill in the dots for ourselves.)

Photo of Kathleen M. Brady as Mistress Overdone and David Ivers as Pompey
Kathleen M. Brady as Mistress Overdone
and David Ivers as Pompey
Photo: Terry Shapiro
But it is the comedic elements that ultimately facilitate the delivery of the play's serious message. This is not just a matter of the playwright interjecting comic relief to break up the action and keep the groundlings interested, but the creation of a parallel plot that "lightens up" the tragic elements. Here, among the bawds, clowns, fools, and fantastics, the depth of the company shows, as Sam Gregory, David Ivers, Bill Christ, Karl Hanover, Philip Pleasants, and Kathleen M. Brady provide enough mirth to perfectly balance the script's challenging issues, measure for measure.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Measure for Measure runs through February 25th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

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.


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