For every ten “Macbeths” and “Midsummer Night’s Dreams” in the world, you might find one “Measure for Measure.” Originally called a comedy, this story about corruption, sin and hypocrisy is now usually lumped with Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” the ones that lie in a thorny area between comedy and tragedy, not sitting well in either place. There may be social issues or problems to resolve, but in my mind, the “problem” in a problem play is usually how tough it is to pull off.
And yet… And yet there’s an awful lot of good stuff in “Measure for Measure.” The role of Angelo is right there at the top of the list.
Angelo is the one at the center of the plot, the moralistic official who sentences a young man named Claudio to death for premarital sex. And then, when Claudio’s sister Isabella, on the brink of becoming a nun, comes to Angelo to plead for the life of her brother, our man Angelo says, okay, he’ll save him, but only if the fair Isabella will sleep with him.
A politician trying to trade influence for sex in the most corrupt, duplicitous way possible? That’s somebody we can all recognize. It’s also the kind of juicy, conflicted role actors like to sink their teeth into.
Isabella is another one. She’s strong in her need to stay pure, with no shilly-shallying whatsoever. Sorry, bro. There’s no way Isabella will save you if it means putting her own chastity (and her immortal soul, to her way of thinking) on the line. But what could be self-righteous or sanctimonious has to come off sympathetic and right to make Isabella work.
And then there’s the Duke. He’s the one who left Angelo in charge, although we’re never sure why. He says he’s leaving Vienna for a break (Poland is where he pretends he’s off to) but really hangs around to watch what happens, hiding out in a friar’s habit. When he finds out what Angelo is up to with regard to Isabella, he can’t help but jump in and try to maneuver things to make it all turn out all right.
So who is this duke on the downlow? Why does he go for tricks and disguises when he could just fix things immediately if he would pop back up as himself? I don’t know. Duke Vincentio is a weird one, that’s for sure.
But after seeing ISU’s “Measure for Measure,” directed by Brandon Ray and with Jake Olbert as the Duke, I have a theory. Ray’s spartan production has lots of shades of gray, from the squares on the floor (courtesy of Emily Wilken’s scenic design) to all the stern business suits (a central part of Judith Rivera Ramirez’s costume design).
Olbert’s Duke spends his time undercover in a black-and-white habit, with no gray areas, yet he is the most shadowy character of all. In Olbert’s performance, the Duke seems removed from the power he wields, unsure, almost reluctant at the onset. He seems to be taking a breather to get back his moral conviction, but then he finds it’s even more difficult than he thought to draw bright lines around law and morality. What’s more important, preserving life or punishing sin? What does it take to be a good ruler?
And what does he do now that he, too, is attracted to the pure and luminous Isabella? Is he any better than that sleazeball Angelo if he comes on to the girl?
That very question is why “Measure for Measure” is so fascinating and so aggravating all at the same time. Ray’s cast – especially Brian Garvens as Angelo, Molly Rose Lewis as Isabella and Olbert as Duke Vincentio – do excellent work with their characters, gaining steam as the play progresses, nicely defining all those moral lines and questions.
Cady Leinicke is also a bright note when she enters the action as Mariana, the woman scorned by Angelo who may just be the answer to Isabella’s dilemma. Leinicke brings into sharp relief one of the problems modern audiences have with this plot – why would we wish the likes of Angelo on this lovely woman? – with her vibrant performance.
On the comic side, Matthew Bausone makes a wily, glib Lucio, the would-be hipster with a major inability to read the room; Jason Raymer brings good energy to Elbow, a dim constable whose wife may be a hooker; and Owais Ahmed seems to enjoy being Pompey the procurer for his time on stage.
All in all, this “Measure for Measure” is a good effort with solid production values and performances. It raises all the right questions, and that’s all you can ask of this “problem play.”
Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare
ISU Westhoff Theatre
Director: Brandon Ray
Scenic Designer: Emily Wilken
Costume Designer: Judith Rivera Ramirez
Lighting Designer: Marty Wooster
Sound Designer/Composer: Joe Payne
Dramaturg: Melissa Scott
Cast: Jake Olbert, Danny Rice, Katie Schutzkus, Brian Garvens, Matthew Bausone, Luke Simone, Mike Graf, Terri Whisenhunt, Owais Ahmed, Patrick Gerard Cooper, Paula Nowak, Raquel Rangel, Ware Carlton Ford, Molly Rose Lewis, Jason Raymer, Amanda Rogowski, Anthony Ballweg, Akeila LeClaire, Cady Leinicke.
Running time: 2:35, including one 15-minute intermission
Remaining performances: October 29 and 30 at 7:30 pm; October 30 and 31 at 2 pm