By Lily Janiak San Francisco Gate, published August 8, 2017.
To stage one of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays is to give yourself a mighty hurdle to leap over. The fate of your production will hang not just on the usual suspects like acting and design but also on to what extent you mitigate a central problem: trying to unify a hodgepodge of tones, to make sense of a script that straddles comedy and tragedy. In some problem plays, obsolete gender, racial or religious politics exacerbate the problem; in others, a central implausibility makes the whole story difficult to accept.
The problem in “Measure for Measure” is a little bit of all of these, and director Tyne Rafaeli gets closer than most in solving it, in a coproduction between Santa Cruz Shakespeare (where I saw the show Saturday, Aug. 5) and California Shakespeare Theater (where the show will transfer, with performances beginning Sept. 13). This coproduction marks the first time the two Shakespeare companies have collaborated in this manner.
The basic premise of “Measure” strains credulity. The Duke (Rowan Vickers), in order to rid Vienna of vice, runs away and instates another, Angelo (David Graham Jones), with full leave to enforce long-ignored moral codes. This is all so that the Duke, in disguise as a friar, might observe how things play out. He keeps up this grand, whimsical social experiment long after it would seem to do him or his state any good, long after he’s begun playing god with his subject’s families, with their beliefs about life and death, in order to subject them to still further loyalty and purity tests.
Yet the Duke isn’t all caprice. His right-hand man, Escalus (Tristan Cunningham), describes the Duke as a man who “above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself” and as “a gentleman of all temperance.” In Vickers’ boyish, earnest rendering, the Duke is roiled by his perceived mistakes as a ruler. Philosophical questions are to him earthbound emergencies. He opens the show in a panic, scarcely able to make eye contact with anyone as he hurries to abscond. His performance helps make the incredible credible: He fidgets like a criminal — that’s how he sees himself — so it makes sense that he would steal away as one.
Many other members of Rafaeli’s cast triumph as well. As Isabella, the nun offered a chance to save her brother’s life in exchange for her virginity, Lindsay Rico pursues humility with such towering strength and sharp focus that she seems more CEO or warlord than sister of the abbey. You yearn to see a play with Isabella as the protagonist. Annie Worden slays in variety of comic roles; in particular, her antsy performance as the dimwitted Constable Elbow — it’s as if he’s afflicted by a great permanent itch, maybe a psychological one, from deep within — would be worthy of its own cartoon show.
The Duke gets some laughs, too; Rafaeli wisely doesn’t try to smooth over his clownishness, his insouciance. If he plays god with his duchy, he’s also eminently real and human. Rafaeli’s production reminds us that, while “Measure” might not drive forward with the inexorable force of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it gives us a protagonist who might more closely mirror us.
Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic.
Measure for Measure: Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. Through Sept 2. $25-$55. Grove at DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. (831) 460-6399. www.santacruzshakespeare.org; Sept. 13-Oct. 8. $20-$72. subject to change. California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. (510) 548-9666. www.calshakes.org. Two hours, 25 minutes.
To see an interview with director Tyne Rafaeli: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApyE_NWvm-U&feature=youtu.be