By Philip Pearce, published July 24, 2017
MEASURE FOR MEASURE, now on view at Santa Cruz Shakespeare, is one of the Bard’s undervalued masterpieces. For lack of a better category, most editors file it among the comedies. But it has more in common with the rancid satire of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera than the music and fairy dust of Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a lot of ways it’s a very modern play.
It has never tended to draw big crowds. There aren’t any characters you can consistently and warmly identify with. Everyone is flawed or greedy or self-righteous or hypocritical or vindictive or all of the above. But its picture of political corruption and human vice is painted with a murky brilliance.
Tyne Rafaeli directs the new production in The Grove at DeLaveaga Park with an eye to clarity and strong emotion. Costumer Montana Levi Bianco dresses characters in shades of black and white that emphasize their function as parts of a parable rather than citizens of a realistic city called Vienna.
It’s all about eavesdropping, and designer Annie Smart’s pale gray set features ground level sliding doors backed by a checkerboard of little square cubicle hiding holes. Early on, characters mentioned by somebody at stage level appear in one of these upper level cubicles like figures trapped in a picture frame. It’s a maneuver that makes for quick identification of roles that may be doubled and even tripled by a spirited cast of eight actors.
The plot is unbelievable but it was never meant to be anything else. Shakespeare creates an exciting but highly unlikely series of events that exist to illustrate what happens when government sets out to legislate human morality and gets tangled up in its own machinations.
Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, has spent years languidly ignoring his city’s rigid moral laws, especially those aimed at punishing sexual promiscuity. Recognizing the need for reform, he announces that he’s taking an extended vacation and turning over the job of draining the legal swamp to his deputy, a simon-pure martinet named Angelo. David Graham Jones plays the deputy with an eager and prissy precision that makes it clear why everyone in town says he has ice water running through his veins. Meanwhile, nobody but Vincentio and a conniving friar from the local monastery knows the Duke intends to disguise himself and become a Franciscan fly on the wall watching to see how well Angelo manages to reward virtue and punish vice in a new squeaky clean Vienna. Rowan Vickers uses voice and body to effectively distinguish the real Duke from the supposed Friar by more than just a costume change and a pair of glasses.
Angelo’s reforms predictably cause a succession of explosions in the low-life Viennese community, notably from an indignant brothel madam named Mistress Overdone, played, along with three other roles, by the tireless and funny Annie Warden. A misguided commentator on the new regime, Adam Schroeder does a fine job as a talkative local pain in the neck called Lucio.
But the chief victim of Angelo’s reforms is Claudio, a young noble played by Kevin Matthew Reyes as a dazed deer unwittingly caught in the headlights of the new municipal cleanup. Claudio has been unlucky enough to impregnate his fiancée Juliet and learns to his grief that the long redundant law making fornication a capital crime has just come back into effect. But he’s hopeful that his sister Isabella, a strong- minded beauty in the novitiate of the local Poor Claires convent, will manage, like a Viennese Portia, to persuade Angelo to forget justice and opt for mercy.
Isabella succeeds and yet fails. In the play’s one role that could qualify as wholly sympathetic, Lindsay Rico is focused, eloquent and lovely. Her costume helps. The design team manages to give the white and gray habit and wimple of the young novice a stark beauty that caps any other female costume in the play and makes it believable that she does indeed melt the ice water in Angelo’s veins, only to discover that his sparing her brother’s life comes with a price. Released from sexual repression into an unlikely explosion of lust, Angelo agrees to free Claudio in exchange for one night in bed with Isabella.
Isabella’s immediate refusal to surrender her virginity, even to save her brother’s life, has caused a lot of modern audiences to write her off as a heartless prude. The fact that she then agrees to a deceptive bed-trick that makes Angelo think he has bedded her doesn’t help a lot. Director Rafaeli and player Rico work hard to counteract the ice-maiden image. As things turn out, Isabella was wise to say no. Angelo, supposing he has enjoyed her favors, then orders Claudio to be executed anyway. Rico’s powerful and full-throated sobbing horror on learning of the deception works against the idea that she’s in any way prim and heartless.
The action moves on through a succession of other plots and counter-plots that often challenge logic but hold your attention. And then Shakespeare closes with the Duke, in and out of disguise, staging a puppet show that caps any of the earlier implausibilities. He cruelly withholds important good news from the agonized Isabella and only reveals it after keeping her needlessly grieving for a Claudio who hasn’t died after all. He then imposes the required legal punishments on all the guilty parties and then lifts them in a final burst of theatrical mercy. He finally (wait for it) proposes marriage to Isabella. Shakespeare doesn’t supply her with a response, but this production decides that she abandons vows and habit and immediately becomes the Duchess of Vienna. Pleasant but incredible? Feel-good but ridiculous? Maybe. But I like to think that for Shakespeare it’s just another part of the dark overriding joke.
This version is well worth a visit to The Grove in DeLaveaga Park. It continues through September 2nd, but in repertory with Two Gentlemen of Verona and The 39 Steps.