By Wallace Baine, Sentinel Entertainment Editor, published July 20, 2017
William Shakespeare, now 400 years in his grave, has already made his presence felt in the continuously unfolding circus act of contemporary American politics. Last month, a New York production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” was hurled into the feeding trough of political punditry when it cast a suspiciously Donald Trump-like actor in the title role.
Director Tyne Rafaeli considered a similar approach when she landed the opportunity to direct Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” for Santa Cruz Shakespeare. But ultimately she decided that the political themes that “Measure” wrestles with were even bigger than Trump.
“I applaud and defend their right to do that,” said Rafaeli of the Public Theater’s controversial production. “But we decided not to make this production a direct parallel to our current administration, but to distance it ever so slightly so we can have a deeper conversation about power, political regime change and the effort to control the bodies of women. I think we can have a deeper experience if we’re not tickled by making this an American moment.”
Still, the new production of “Measure” – officially opening Friday at the Grove at Delaveaga Park – has its eyes firmly on the political moment, only in a global sense. The play’s themes of the exercise of political power and how it collides with personal and sexual relationships are as relevant now as they’ve ever been whether you’re talking about Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia or other less prominent world leaders.
“We’re not just talking about this country,” said Rafaeli of her first production with SCS. “I’m casting a wider net here. We are going through a moment when we are investigating, in a rigorous and philosophical way, what it means to be in a leader. Trump inspired a larger conversation in this country on what it means to rule. But if we cast our net farther than in our own backyard – in the U.K., they’re having the same conversations and in Eastern Europe as well – the more farther afield you go, the more important this conversation becomes.”
Though it’s officially categorized as a comedy, “Measure” takes on themes and carries a tone that might not fit with the contemporary understanding of that term. The play is set in Vienna beset with social problems, during a critical moment of political transition. The Duke leaves town, putting in charge his assistant Angelo. But the Duke takes on a disguise as a friar to watch up close how Angelo will rule in his stead.
Soon after, a young man is sentenced to death by the new regime for impregnating the woman is set to marry, and when the young man’s sister who is soon to be a nun pleads to the Angelo to spare her brother, the new leader agrees but only if the soon-to-be nun will consent to have sex with him. The play explodes with themes of the political and the personal from that point.
Rafaeli said she was attracted to the play for, among other things, its sharp contrast between the private places of the chambers of power and the wild, chaotic, very public streets of Vienna.
“We jump-cut constantly between these sequestered private spaces and the streets of Vienna,” she said, adding that it was a challenge to create a vibrant urban atmosphere among the quiet eucalyptus trees of the Grove.
A co-production with California Shakespeare Theater in the East Bay, this new production of “Measure” uses only eight actors to play its many roles, including one actor playing six different parts.
“I’d call it a sexy political thriller It’s full of subversion and wild characters and colorful characters, all trying to live their lives and express their humanity in a very contemporary world.”
SHAKESPEARE’S ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’
Directed by: Tyne Rafaeli
When: Preview Thursday, July 20. Opening night, Friday, July 21. Through Sept. 2.
Where: The Grove at Delaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz
Tickets: $25 to $55