by JK Clarke
To effectively convey a message about morals and ethics in a theatrical production, it’s probably best to use a contemporary setting. Characters and circumstances are relatable and dilemmas encountered seem far more plausible, than if the costumes and personalities were from, say, the Renaissance rather than today. So that’s what Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) has done with William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in downtown Brooklyn through July 16) in their compelling new production directed by London National Theatre’s Simon Godwin, directing Shakespeare for the first time with an American company. The result is an insightful look at the timelessness of societal conflicts over justice, power, morality and family.
A study in severe contrasts (many of which are underscored by this production), Measure for Measure tells the story of what happens when Vincentio, Duke of Vienna (a debonair Jonathan Cake), in need of a sabbatical of sorts (or perhaps rehab, as suggested here) leaves the city under the command of his trusted (civil) lieutenant Angelo (played by Thomas Jay Ryan in the image of a grim, nightmarish spawn of Richard Nixon and Ed Sullivan). Aware of Vienna’s escalating vice—due largely to his own participation in and conflicted feelings about—he has chosen a puritanical substitute to help clean things up a bit. Little did he know that Angelo would overreach his authority and engage in power-mad behavior. (And, ironically, little did Shakespeare know that England would be subject some years hence, under Cromwell, to a similar Puritan cultural blackout.)
The transition is almost immediate. Not only are the city’s innumerable “bawd houses” shuttered, but even ordinary citizens—such as a young nobleman, Claudio (Leland Fowler), who has impregnated his wife-to-be (and to whom he is all but married, save for some bureaucratic finalities), Juliet (Sam Morales)—are prosecuted under a long unused, draconian law forbidding fornication. Shockingly, Claudio, as an example to others, is condemned to death.
Stunned citizens and friends plead for Claudio’s life, but to no avail. Finally, his sister Isabella (Cara Ricketts), a nun on the verge of taking her final vows, meets with Angelo and begs for mercy. Angelo is steadfast until he realizes he is in love with Isabella; and in a turnabout not atypical of a severe man of power, he conveniently sidesteps his morals and offers to spare Claudio in exchange for Isabella’s virginity. Isabella is scandalized and refuses, eventually explaining to a bewildered Claudio that he would never live down her sacrificing her chastity for him and that he’ll just have to be content to die. But Duke Vincentio, disguised as a Friar, overhears their discussion and offers an alternative: Isabella will consent, but only meet Angelo in the dark, at which time she’ll switch places with Mariana (sympathetically played by Merritt Janson), to whom Angelo had once been engaged, but whom he had cruelly abandoned when she lost her dowry, rendering her valueless to him.
They go through with the “bed-switch” but, meddling further, the Duke makes it appear as if Claudio was executed anyhow. In a climactic scene, the Duke reveals himself, scolding Isabella (with whom he too is in love) for her willingness to sacrifice her brother for something so terrestrial and tangible as her chastity; and berating Angelo for his severity and hypocrisy, forcing him to promise marriage to the wronged Mariana. Finally, enticing Isabella to love and marry him, he reveals that Claudio is, in fact, still alive. It’s a rather circuitous and belligerent route to teaching several lessons, but in the end, as in all of Shakespeare’s “comedies,” everyone (including several second tier characters not mentioned here) ends up content and (more or less) happily betrothed.
While the tidy, but unlikely, resolutions at play’s end are even more implausible than many of the Bard’s other “problem plays” the message and lesson are louder and more impactful. Although twenty or thirty years ago the idea of fornication as capital crime would have seemed archaic, our awareness of brutal regimes like ISIL serve as a reminder that practices more commonly associated with the Dark Ages are alive and well. What’s more the sub-themes of governmental surveillance, sexual abuse of women by powerful leaders and the vilification of those women who accuse those men ring more relevant today than ever. Thus, the lessons resonate: judge not lest ye be judged; let he who is without sin cast the first stone; and so on.
The play balances on the suddenness of change in society and lifestyle. Director Godwin punctuates the shift by first inviting the audience to enter the theater through the backstage “bordello,” unveiling various red-hued scenes of debauchery. The live music shifts from a bawdy, fun environment to a more serious, militaristic beat almost imperceptibly as Vienna, not unlike the Berlin of Cabaret moves from a “beeyootiful” place with fun, happy people to a harsh, cold, unhappy totalitarian state. Terrific performances by Cake and Janson (who first appears as Mariana at the beginning of the second act as a forlorn nightclub singer) as well as Oberon K.A. Adjepong at the Provost (prison ward) and Haynes Thigpen as a terrifically funny Lucio (the Duke’s antagonist from his hedonistic hipster days) with perfect comic timing. Perhaps the play’s only shortcoming, much of which is textual, is that both Angelo and the Duke fall so hard for Isabella, who in no way behaves as temptress, nor is portrayed as any sort of irresistible siren (as she can sometimes be played). It’s yet another aspect, among many here, for which the audience must suspend disbelief.
It isn’t often that one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays gets a major production by so esteemed a company as Theatre for a New Audience, so on that basis alone this Measure for Measure is a treat. Originally, the company had planned a production of Hamlet, directed by Sam Gold and starring Oscar Isaac, but Gold, citing “insurmountable artistic differences,” backed out of the arrangement (and instead, in an unprecedented move, took the play to The Public Theater where it begins this week). While unfortunate, it seems TFANA audiences got the better end of the deal—instead of seeing yet another production of Hamlet (which gets at least five productions a year in NYC), they get a powerful examination of a lesser known, yet beautifully written and intriguing play, and one that may be even more contemporaneously relevant.
Measure for Measure. Through July 16 at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn). www.tfana.org
Photos: Gerry Goodstein