Review: This week, this news cycle, this country: How to ‘Measure’ this moment?
Words and I usually have a pretty strong relationship. But we’re having a bit of a falling out with this review. I’m finding it difficult to express in written form exactly what it’s like to watch a production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” in the same week that the nation is riveted on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
Is what I’m feeling anger? That’s part of it. It’s tough to watch Angelo, the “righteous” judge with all the power in Vienna, as he brazenly uses his authority to barter for sex. Bemusement at the timing? That’s another factor. I felt as if a CNN reporter were going to burst in at any minute to check out the story of Isabella, the pious woman in the convent who can save her brother’s life if she gives up her virginity.
Amazement is another way to describe my reaction. The same kinds of themes that Shakespeare was writing about 400 years ago still seem just-refreshed-your-browser relevant as today.
But most of all, I think, what I felt after watching the heartfelt and scrappy production of “Measure for Measure” presented by Woodward Shakespeare Festival at the Severance Theatre was a deep, abiding sadness.
I’m sad that sexual harassment — that ugly confluence of power, cruelty, domination and just plain lust — seems such a permanent part of the human condition.
There’s an important additional factor as well.
Before seeing the production, I interviewed Renee Newlove, who plays Isabella. She is a survivor of sexual assault and rape. It’s impossible to watch this performance without thinking of those stark details. When the toughest moment in the toughest scene occurs — when Angelo (played by an imposing Jay Parks) climbs on top of Isabella, pressing her to a desk, I felt a sick, dull ache in my stomach. When Isabella begins to shake, and then sweeps the cheap manila envelopes on the desk aside — the production is set in current times — so she can put her face down the table, a way to shut out the world — I felt a jolt. The moment is visceral, raw, angry.
“Measure for Measure” has long been considered a “problem” play of Shakespeare’s. While it is technically classified as a comedy, the subject matter begs otherwise. The Woodward production, directed by an innovative Aaron Spjute, plays the dramatic elements with confidence. (I particularly liked the staging of the scene in which Isabella first visits Angelo’s imposing chambers; Spjute has placed Angelo seated at a desk with his back to most of the audience, giving the arrangement an imposing perspective.) LaVon Jean-Pierre, as Isabella’s condemned brother, Claudio, brings gravity to the role. Suzanne Grazyna offers a striking, melancholy spin on Mariana, who gets caught up in one of the play’s more bizarre plot twists.
Granted, there are some bright comic spots: Shakespeare included a merry clump of characters designed for laughs, from a cheery bordello owner, Mistress Overdone (an amusing Laura Dodds) to the extravagantly foppish Lucio (Jeremy Hitch, happily playing it to the hilt), who gets dolled up in one increasingly outlandish outfit after another. (His accoutrements included fur, Spandex, a dandelion-festooned tunic and shiny black go-go boots, though not all at the same time.)
Still, the comedy is often hard to follow, and it’s often overplayed. Jonathan Wheeler, who sometimes appears to be channeling his Huey Calhoun character from “Memphis,” could dial his Elbow character back a little. Direction- and diction-wise, I found it hard to track the narrative involving the pimp, Pompey (Patrick Wall).
Bridging the divide between silliness and deathly serious is Heather Roberts-Short as the Duke, who spends much of the play disguised as a lowly friar. She brings an elegant and reassuring stage presence to the role. (Of course, having a woman as the Duke adds an intriguing gender twist.) Yes, I chafed at times at the character — particularly when the Duke/Friar is content to let Isabella dangle in terms of knowing the fate of her brother — but that’s more a choice by Shakespeare.
And speaking of authorial choices, I found myself during the show feeling a lot less charitable than the Bard toward the menacing Angelo. (Parks brings a booming authority to the stage, by the way, but sometimes seems sluggish in his line readings and monologues; I think a brisker pace would help.) Shakespeare suggests that Angelo is at first wracked by guilt for propositioning Isabella and struggles between his piety and lust. I see the character through a more modern lens, perhaps. My thought is that any man willing to use his physical power and social authority to force a woman into sex isn’t going to have dueling good and bad angels on opposite shoulders dithering about right and wrong. I just think he’s all wrong.
But maybe that’s the value of the musty — and weirdly funny and tragic — “Measure for Measure,” where marriage is considered a “punishment” and everyone laughs at a woman who still wants to get hitched to a confessed sexual abuser. The play makes you realize we have to keep fighting for a better world. At least I’ve found my words to be able to say that.