Friday, October 29, 2010

"Measure for Measure" Raises Thorny Questions at ISU

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

Ticket information


  1. You've played Isabella, haven't you, Kathleen? I think your dad should write a modern, two-hour adaptation to do at Heartland. It would fit the mission statement perfectly!

  2. It's a tough nut, isn't it? And yet it's one of my 4 favorite Shakespeares. (The others are more conventional: Hamlet, 12th N, Midsummer.) So much about it is so alive for us, and the difficult, messy bits make it intriguing. There are certainly some difficult bits, though: all that business of the substitute corpse late in the play (Bernardine?) which then kind of fizzles away if I recall right; and especially that in the last scene Isabella virtually fades away -- she has very little to say, in spite of the fact that we would REALLY like to know what she thinks of all this.

    I've seen it several times (not counting Wagner's operatic adaptation, such a piece of juvenilia that it got its first US staging 2 summers ago; I saw it and must agree that the opera itself is hopeless). While I was in grad school, a Shakespeare tour came to town (directed by Tyrone Guthrie); I had a distant balcony seat and found it disappointingly uncompelling and sometimes wrongheaded (at their first meeting, Angelo all but mounted Isabella on his office desk). I caught a matinee of a modern-dress production at the 3 Rivers Festival in Pittsburgh on one visit, in a pub being used as a black-box venue. It was all black-and-white design with harsh lighting, and such ear-splitting heavy-metal music that when I found myself on the sunny street outside at intermission, I decided that nothing could draw me back in, and walked off.

    By far the best I've seen it work is the video that's part of the BBC Shakespeare series. It's beautifully directed, and Kate Nelligan and Tim Pigott-Smith really do a job. I love that one.

  3. I will seek out the Kate Nelligan one!

    I would have liked the challenge of Isabella but played Juliet, the pregnant one, instead, a balance of casting decision with the Free Shakespeare Company that worked out OK. I think I wrote a poem in the voice of Isabella, though. A fragment of it survives, collaged into a longer poem....called "Self Portrait as the Women I Have Played," which isn't then strictly true except that aspects of several Shakespearean women are shared and juggled, et cetera.

  4. I think of Isabella a bit like Desdemona; both can all too easily seem to be simply reactive, naive, and not too bright. I like to see both coming from a position of strength, not weakness: Desdemona has defied her father and her society and she knows what she wants so intensely that she makes some mistakes about the best way to handle things; and Isabella is so blazingly dedicated to her faith that she can be deaf to the complexity of situations. (NOT meaning that she should have yielded to Angelo!)

    In part Measure for Measure, like its companion "problem play" All's Well That Ends Well, is about the need to see the complexities of human interaction and be willing to get one's hands dirty when doing so.

  5. I would love to see the Kate Nelligan/Tim Pigott-Smith. All my sources site that one as a real success.

    I think "the need to see the complexities of human interaction" is exactly how I see the Duke's dilemma in M4M. He hasn't got a grip on real people or real human weakness and no idea how to try to keep people from all the vice and depravity that offends him, and throwing around harsh and punitive laws isn't going to work at all.

    I do like the play and I kind of love the pretzels the Duke and Angelo and even Isabella make of themselves.

    I saw it with a friend who said he'd always wanted to try to stage it as an out-and-out comedy, with even Claudio's tragedy made silly and crazy. I'd like to see how that worked, even if I don't think it really would.

    I will say I enjoyed the cocky little Napoleon of a duke I saw in a production a few years ago (set in the Empire period, naturally). He was very different from Jake's more diffident duke, but they both worked as approaches to the character.

  6. Oh -- I knew I'd seen it at least one other time, and now I remember it was at Arena Stage (DC) in 1986, in their in-the-round theater. Robert Westenberg, otherwise famous for musicals (Prince/Wolf in Into the Woods, Soldier in Sunday in the Park) was Angelo, and Kerry Armstrong, then a big TV name for being the Duchess of Branagh on Dynasty, was Isabella. The main thing I now remember is that they didn't go for any ambiguity (will she accept his proposal or not?) for the final tableau: she ripped off her wimple and threw herself into his arms. Which I didn't feel adequately prepared for.

    I'm now getting the urge to pull the BBC M4M DVD off the shelf and revisit it.

    Julie, do you remember that I used Angelo's "What's this?" soliloquy for my birthday video to my actor friend?

  7. Sorry I missed your comment, Jon! Yes, I do remember your Angelo speech and you were pretty darn good. I found it very interesting that that was the speech you were attracted to, to present for your friend's birthday. But what a good idea, to have people give you Shakespeare speeches for a birthday.

  8. Thanks for the kind words about my Angelo. You should have seen my performance in William Walton's "Façade" yesterday (with otherwise all-student performers)! 40 minutes of me reciting Edith Sitwell poems in rhythm to instrumental backup, in an English accent (and in one poem, Scottish!).

    I did look at about half the BBC Measure for Measure again yesterday. It lives up to my memory of it. Kate Nelligan is especially interesting, because her religious fervor blazes so strong (with heat rather than coldness), you can see how it could be magnetic for Angelo, and get around his defenses without her ever realizing it.