At Woodward Shakespeare Festival, taking ‘Measure’ of turbulent times

Twenty years ago, Renee Newlove saw a production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” on a high school trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

It changed her life.

“I realized while sitting in the audience that I needed to be in a production of this show. I knew, though, that a 17-year-old would not be able to portray the depth of emotions needed for Isabella, I waited until I could truly embody Isabella for who she is.”

Pictured at top: Jeremy Hitch, left, as Lucio, and Renee Newlove, as Isabella, in ‘Measure for Measure.’ Photo: Woodward Shakespeare Festival

Fast forward a couple of decades. Newlove, a veteran actor with Woodward Shakespeare Festival, finally has a chance to play her dream role. Aaron Spjute directs. “Measure for Measure” opens Friday, Sept. 28. She took some time to talk about the production.

Q: This is a Woodward Shakespeare Festival production, but it isn’t at the park. What’s up?

A: WSF is trying something new. We are calling it our “Indoor Series.” The new board has been thinking about how to beat the heat during the summer months, and we wanted to explore the indoor option. The excitement and support for “Measure for Measure” has allowed the board to see that indoor shows are a viable option so now we will be splitting our summer season with an indoor show. These shows will be specifically chosen because they are plays that wouldn’t necessarily work on the big outdoor stage. Plus with the advantage of lights and sound, the artistic value can be greater. We are excited about this new venture for the WSF.


Q: Is it weird not to be sweating on those hot summer nights?

Ha! It’s funny you mention that. Since I am playing Isabella and she is about to go into the convent, she is very covered and buttoned up. The air-conditioning is a huge plus for all my layers! The actors definitely appreciate the climate control, though! I think, through all of my years on the outdoor stage, my body has acclimated to the heat so I am not as affected by it as others.

Q: Give us a quick synopsis of “Measure for Measure.”

A: The Duke has lost some control of Vienna and is deciding to “step down” so that Angelo can restore order to the city. Angelo is known as a pious and religious man; the Duke hopes that Angelo can enforce a law that has been ignored for 19 years. Angelo sentences all people who are caught having premarital sex to death. Angelo also removes all of the brothels from the city, as we are told by Mistress Overdone and Pompey.

Claudio gets his fiancee, Juliet, pregnant and they both are taken to jail. While enroute, Claudio asks that Lucio go to his sister, Isabella, to see if she can plead for his life to Angelo. Isabella’s encounter with Angelo seems good at first, but when she returns to discuss Claudio’s life the next day, Angelo tells her that he will free Claudio if she has sex with him. Isabella goes to her brother to tell him that he will die because she will not sleep with Angelo.

Meanwhile, the Duke (disguised as Friar Lodowick), realizes that Claudio is wrongly jailed and Angelo is not the man she thought he was. The Duke tells Isabella that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, Mariana, can go in her place. After the encounter, Angelo sends the warrant for Claudio’s head. The Duke, still disguised as Friar Lodowick, convinces the Provost to not carry out the death sentence, rather send Angelo the head of a prisoner who had died from fever. The Duke tells Isabella that her brother died and she needs to accuse Angelo in public. The Duke sends letters to Angelo and her advisor Escalus informing them that she will return and that she wants everyone to meet her at the city gates.

At the return, Isabella accuses Angelo of being a murderer and “virgin-violator”, the Duke sneaks out to return as Friar Lodowick, Escalus interrogates Lucio and Isabella, Mariana explains that she was the one who slept with Angelo, and Friar Lodowick is unmasked, revealing the Duke. The Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana, she reveals that she saved Claudio’s life and reunites him with Isabella, she pardons Claudio, and she offers a new life to Isabella.

Q: You’ve described this production as your “personal passion project.” Why?

A: The #MeToo movement has shifted the way our society views many men in power, rightfully so. I am a survivor of my own sexual assault and rape. There are many people in our cast who have their own stories as well. I knew this story needed to be told. I knew that some of my actor friends needed to share in telling this story with me, and I started to build my team.

Jay Parks was my first partner on this project. He and I have been in shows together but we had never have had the chance to act off of one another. Also, as Angelo he and I needed that trust between one another to be able to explore the assault scene in the play. This production has been tough for both of us to go through, but I am thankful that he’s there with me. We check in with one another every night to make sure we are okay. Aaron Spjute was the next person to come on and his treatment of the script and show has been inspired. This show is crafted beautifully because of Aaron’s leadership and passion. The rest fell together and our team was built. We have the best people possible to tell this story now. I have wanted to do this show for so long, it’s truly a blessing to see it finally come to fruition.

Q: As part of your concept, you’ve put a twist on the casting and highlight the #MeToo movement. What can you tell us about that without giving too much away?

A: “Measure for Measure” is slated as a “problem play” of Shakespeare’s, yet I see it more as Shakespeare’s morality play. He does an interesting job portraying a society that has fallen to the corrupt and loose-moraled. In our production we cast both the Duke and Escalus as women. This makes for a very interesting environment for Angelo, who is given power when the Duke goes into hiding. There is a scene between Angelo and Isabella where he tells her that she can only save his brother’s life if she sleeps with him. He advances on her aggressively; the scene is very realistic and reflects the current events in today’s society. When Isabella tells Angelo that she will let the world know what kind of man he is, he asks “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” When she publicly accuses him she is called insane and her character is called into question. When the Duke is restored, her power is vital to Isabella’s story as well as Angelo’s consequences.

Q: When you decided to produce this show, you couldn’t have known that along with the #MeToo movement, our nation would be undergoing a heated national discussion about sexual assault. What has it been like to process current events at the same time as working on this play?

A: It has been liberating to watch what has happened in society and to engage in displaying why the conversation about consent is so important. Art imitates life, sometimes in the best and worst ways. I am producing this show because it is a story that can help people start the conversation and engage in understanding what consent is. I have had quite a few people ask about the rating of the show. It is strongly PG-13 for lewd jokes, assault, and sexual harassment. I have let parents know that this story can be a powerful tool to start the conversation with their teenagers, regardless of gender. We have taken some of the elements of the current events and added them into the show to provide a bridge for audiences to see how this 400-plus-year-old story is relevant today.

Q: Tell us one thing about the production that an audience member wouldn’t otherwise know from watching it.

A: All of the characters have a backstory that we built together. There is history with these people, and if you were to ask the actors what their relationships were, they could tell you. For example, I know why Isabella joins the convent, her relationship with her brother, and what she does after the show ends. We have discussed this at length and I feel that it is vital for the characters to be more realistic when the actors understand who they are playing.

Q: OK, silly fantasy question: You get to have dinner with Shakespeare. What would you talk about?

A: I really want to know how he learned about the human condition. I want to talk to him about his wife, Anne Hathaway, and his son Hamnet dying. I want to know what his favorite color is.

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from this production?

A: I hope audiences start talking about consent and sexual assault. I want to make the audience feel something. I hope that this show encourages more to speak up about the abuse of power and sexual assault that happens in our society. We need to change, and I hope this show starts the conversation.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: This show has been very cathartic for me, I am a method actor to a point and this show has helped me work through some of my emotions surrounding my trauma. I am in awe of those who are with me on this journey and empowered by their stories. The fact that the board put their trust in me to tell this story is amazing and I am very thankful to Chris Campbell for all of his support. He is the unsung hero of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival and this production.

Show info

“Measure for Measure,” opens 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, and continues through Oct. 7. A Woodward Shakespeare Festival production. Severance Theatre, 1401 N. Wishon Ave., Fresno.
Donations are accepted at the door, but people can reserve their seats for $10.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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