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Measure for Measure

From Foreplay to a Happy Climax

Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York
Thursday, June 29, 2017, A–109&110 (front row center mezzanine)
Directed by Simon Godwin

The foreplay is not to be dismissed. What might seem an inconsequential novelty is instructive in the play to come in this Theatre for a New Audience production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Isabella, in nun's white habit, speaks, smilingly, with left hand out (rosary beads hanging from the sleeve) and right hand on the breast of Angelo, wearing a dark suit and the gold chain around his neck
Isabella (Cara Ricketts) pleads with Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) for the life of her brother, Claudio, in the Theatre for a New Audience production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure directed by Simon Godwin. Photo by Henry Grossman, Theatre for a New Audience.

We are invited to enter the Polonsky Shakespeare Center's Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage through the backstage door. Pompey directs us down a hallway of black doors with signs signaling that the rooms are vacant (the doors, which would swing out into the hallway, have no knobs, though a couple of people try tugging on the hinges). We pass a bedroom on the left (behind glass), with a hot-looking prostitute standing by the bed across from a man playing a bass guitar while sitting at a keyboard. We turn into another hall with shelves of various sex toys and phallic décor. We ascend a stairway as a man wearing a mask saunters down the steps. S&M weaponry hang on the wall above the landing. We finally emerge onto the back of the stage as The Lusty Puddings, a trio of guitar, bass, and drums on one side of the deep thrust stage, play a sultry blues jazz set.

We have just passed through Mistress Overdone's house in a modern-day rendering of Shakespeare's Vienna by wunderkind British director Simon Godwin. This physical passage sets a psychological state—puerile titillation, libidinous mystery, and a pervading sense of danger—for the stage production to come. Beyond suggesting that Vienna is a brothel, Godwin uses our frame of mind to map out a thematic path for Shakespeare's play, in which the Duke, Vincentio (Jonathan Cake), seeks his own redemption, women overcome misogynistic institutions to achieve empowerment, and danger is not defined by place or position, but person. Oh, and it's a comedy, too.

It bears noting that the man on the stairway was Claudio (Leland Fowler). His sexual relations with his fiancée ensnare him in a newly instituted system of justice after ultrastrict Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan) takes the reins of government during Vincentio's self-imposed sabbatical. However audience members may react, according to their own barometer of morality, to that passage through prostitution into the theater, the fact that the man doomed to die on account of his devoted love for his betrothed is a brothel customer establishes this play's amoral foundation. On this foundation, Godwin lets loose Shakespeare's characters, with all their human complexities, to navigate the play's constantly shifting social and psychological landscape. In ways both serious and comic, each character must face moral choices on their journeys—and at every step they inevitably make the choices that best serve their individual needs.

Scenic and Costume Designer Paul Wills turns the stage itself into a large banquet table at the play's start, with audience members sitting in fancy chairs on either side. On the stage is a table runner crossing the center, three candelabras, four sets of gold balloons, silver trays holding wine bottles and glasses, and glitter scattered about. It's party time as characters enter in full revelry, clutching champagne bottles and each other while dancing on the table. They run off except for one, the Duke, who sinks to his knees, shoots up on heroin, and collapses on the stage, pulling the runner around him as a blanket.

Escala (January LaVoy, regendering the character of the Duke's senior advisor, Escalus), enters, and the Duke awakens to the reality of both his and his government's state. Making Vincentio a junkie at least turns the Duke's notoriously confusing opening lines into a drug-fogged speech. It also places Vincentio squarely in the middle of the Viennese society he has created. This would seem to contradict his later explanation to the Friar—the one who will help the Duke with his disguise as a "true friar"—that he prefers "the life removed" and holds "in idle price to haunt assemblies where youth and cost and witless bravery keeps," but Cake sells this Duke's prevaricating nature, one that shapes his own self-image.

Vincentio's travels as a disguised friar might be intended to glean greater understanding of Vienna's government, but it serves him more as a path to greater understanding of himself. His turning the government over to Angelo in the opening scene contains contradictory undercurrents: Cake's Duke seems intent on maintaining a measured persona, but he speaks some of his lines with the coy cynicism of a man who really hasn't ever much liked Angelo. Meanwhile, in Ryan's reading, Angelo has an obvious distaste for the Duke, and he's surprised when Vincentio conveys his authority to him, at which point Cake's Duke is intent on showing his earnestness as he places his dukedom's chain about the deputy's neck. The Duke later tells the friar that, given Angelo's "precise" nature as one who "stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses that his blood flows, or that his appetite is more to bread than stone" (a double-meaning coming from the stoned Duke), we'll see "if power change purpose, what our seemers be." Nevertheless, Cake's Vincentio expresses genuine shock when he overhears Isabella tell Claudio, her brother, about Angelo's requirement of sex with him in return for her brother's freedom.

As Cake portrays the Duke, he is ministering to himself as much as he is to Claudio and Isabella in the prison, engaging in reflective meditation in his own journey to redemption. The closer he gets, the more his confidence grows. In the final scene, Vincentio is a powerful political figure as he reveals himself from the monk's disguise, manages Angelo's fate, and lays out the path for Isabella to choose her own moral redemption. There is no prevaricating in his self-image, now.

Isabella needing "moral redemption"? As played by the engaging Cara Ricketts, yes. I've experienced many a well-portrayed Isabella over a dozen previous productions of Measure for Measure, but Ricketts' is the most fascinating I've seen in its study of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood (and, for that matter, the cusp of a life of vowed celibacy in an order of nuns) who doesn't quite know what she wants. She can come across as flighty, yet she is always intelligent and self-possessed of her place and personhood: she is an 18-year-old for our times. It's a risky reading of the part, but Ricketts maintains consistency in her portrayal, from her arm's-length interaction with the self-professed lothario Lucio (Hanes Thigpen) through her scenes with both Angelo and her brother.

The presentation of the Isabella-Claudio jail scene is gut-wrenching, made all the more effective with the Wills-designed mobile jail cells and Matthew Richards' lighting design creating an oppressively labyrinthine prison. Fowler's Claudio shows the strain of cultural expectation as he first insists that his sister not give in to Angelo's request, but his facade soon cracks as his fear of dying (and his obvious love for the good life) pours out. Such anger emerges from Isabella's aghast reaction that her brother would demean her own personal mores on such selfish grounds that Ricketts seems willing to behead Claudio herself. It's a frenzied woman the disguised Duke corrals as he intervenes and sends Claudio to reconcilement with his fate.

Such an Isabella quickly embraces Vincentio's plot to use a bed-trick—Isabella agreeing to the tryst with Angelo but then Angelo's one-time betrothed, Mariana, taking her place—to both save her brother and entrap Angelo. When Angelo, even after believing he had bedded Isabella, still orders Claudio's execution, Isabella is bent on justice at any cost. When the Duke makes his "measure still for measure" decree condemning Angelo to "the very block where Claudio stoop'd to death, and with like haste," Isabella celebrates with a fist pump. Thus, she undertakes a great moral reckoning to, upon Marianna's plea, bend her knees and supplicate the Duke to spare Angelo's life.

Then again, Ryan does not play an Angelo given to villainy: it sneaks up on him, as Isabella ultimately concludes ("I partly think a due sincerity govern'd his deeds, till he did look on me"). This Angelo is exactly as Vincentio describes him to the friar, and Ryan looks like so many congressmen, senators, and governors we see on CNN and Fox News intoning legal reasoning sans big-picture social ramifications. "Show some pity," Isabella pleads for her brother. "I show it most of all when I show justice," Angelo replies; "for then I pity those I do not know." With Ricketts so adroitly balancing Isabella's holy purposes and bubbly nature, it's easy to see Angelo's enchantment with her, leading directly to an obsession. "What, do I love her, that I desire to hear her speak again, and feast upon her eyes?" he asks himself, bewildered, in his first soliloquy after their meeting. In delivering Angelo's second soliloquy on the matter—"Heaven hath my empty words; whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, anchors on Isabel"—Ryan presents a man crushing on Isabella, holding a flower and small gift that he intends to give her.

Her rejection, naturally, shocks the suitor, but out of this shock, and the political realization that quickly follows, his tyranny begins to flow. Such a sudden shift into predatory behavior, even molesting her as she reaches for the documents on his desk that would pardon Claudio, is a dangerously powerful theatrical moment. His course thereafter is political expediency. Once Isabella offered up her body to him, he couldn't keep his promise to free Claudio: concerned that "no particular scandal" should touch him, Angelo realizes that by letting Claudio go free "that riotous youth, with dangerous sense, might in the times to come have ta'en revenge by so receiving a dishonor'd life with ransom of such shame."

His duplicitous treatment of Mariana (Merritt Janson) also stems from a sense of entitlement. He breaks off their engagement when her dowry doesn't come through and, in the final scene, when Mariana reveals that she, not Isabella, is the woman he bedded, Angelo claims that he broke with her "in chief for that her reputation was disvalued in levity." What exactly he means by this, Shakespeare's text doesn't say; Godwin, though, takes his cue from Mariana's line to the friar-disguised Duke that she "well could wish you had not found me here so musical."

The Moated Grange (at St. Luke's) is here a nightclub and Mariana its proprietor and singer. The intermission transitions into the second half of the production with The Lusty Puddings, now on the stage, performing music composed by Jane Shaw and Shakespeare, with members of the audience occupying cocktail lounge tables on the stage. Mariana joins the band to sing their final two numbers and then closes down the club, sending the patrons back to their regular seats—urging them to return for the drink specials on Wednesday night—before spying the disguised Duke waiting to attend her. In this persona, Janson gives a true portrait of a woman spurned but unable to let go a love that is so strong.

The Duke in a friars robe and hood, with dark-framed glasses and smiling off to the side.

Isabella in nun's white habit on her knees, Claudio wearing yellow prison shirt and pants inside a jail cell, the bars casting shadows on the stage floor around the kneeling Isabella.
Top, Jonathan Cake as Duke Vincentio disguised as a friar in William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at the Theatre for a New Audience. Above, Claudio (Leland Fowler) pleads with Isabella (Cara Ricketts) to give in to Angelo's sex proposition so that he may live. Photos by Henry Grossman, Theatre for a New Audience.

It's a truth that has thematic resonance beyond Mariana's story. Question how Angelo can fall so quickly in lust with Isabella; the answer is that Cake's Vincentio does, too. When Isabella arrives back at the prison to greet the brother she thinks will be freed, her effervescent charm smacks this Duke right in the heart. Cake makes the moment of realization palpable, even as he now tells her that Angelo did not reprieve Claudio and her brother is dead (that last bit an out-and-out lie). Vincentio ends up following Angelo's route in courting Isabella at a most inappropriate moment, right after revealing in the final scene the yet-living Claudio. One of the great conundrums in the canon is Isabella's non-response: she says nothing, and Shakespeare gives no clue via the script or stage direction how she reacts. [SPOILER ALERT] In Godwin's staging, Isabella, shocked at first, spends the remainder of the scene—as the Duke, with an anger beyond appeasement, dispenses with Lucio—quietly pondering Vincentio's proposal. When he then repeats it, she gives it one final consideration, turns, and rushes to the Duke with gleeful acceptance.

Though he uses a modern setting, Godwin not only remains textually true, he also abides by the fact that Shakespeare considered Measure for Measure a comedy, and so he uses the comic conventions of ending with an impending marriage (other than Lucio's enforced wedding to the woman he impregnated). Despite the moral conundrums explored in the play and the serious storyline at its center, this production is unabashedly comical, from Cake's often-bewildered Duke and Thigpen's lusty Lucio to Christopher Michael McFarland as a Falstaffian Pompey. Zachary Fine does double comic duty, first playing Elbow as an overzealous constable in bicycle cop uniform, presenting the "strange pick lock" that he found on Pompey, which is actually a phallic toy (love the visual pun). Fine then dons the yellow prison garb of Barnardine and, with intellectual force and exquisite comic timing, anchors what I've always considered one of Shakespeare's funniest scenes of the unredeemable prisoner who is too drunk to be executed. The script's many contradictions come to the fore, especially when the friar-disguised Duke insists there is no sin in beguiling Angelo with the bed trick (let's see: lying, fraud, premarital sex). Then, too, Vincentio's disguise beyond the friar's robe is thick, dark-framed glasses, like Superman's disguise as Clark Kent. Measure for Measure is a comic fantasy: a gritty, morally charged, psychologically and political disturbing fantasy, perhaps, but comedy nonetheless.

At its conclusion, the women, along with Vincentio and the loyal Provost (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) are the ones with happy futures. Lucio would rather be executed than married, and Angelo sees the end of his days as a social and political force. Mariana, on the other hand, has seen her devoted patience rewarded, and she still has her nightclub. It's also clear that Isabella, in agreeing to marry the Duke, is not destined for a subservient existence. The Isabella portrayed by Ricketts would never be so, and Cake's Duke knows it, placing his Dukedom's chain, which he had just a few minutes before received back from Angelo, around her neck. The other prominent woman on stage at the climax is Escala. One of the many rewards in regendering Vincentio's old advisor, a capable manager of government affairs and a wise adjudicator of legal matters—and Lavoy playing her as a woman in her prime (Lavoy also plays Mistress Overdone)—is that she gets to deliver the true indictment of Angelo's behavior: "I am sorry, one so learned and so wise, as you, Lord Angelo, have still appear'd, should slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood and lack of temper'd judgment afterward." That is the play's strongest moral statement.

Godwin gives this Measure for Measure a tidy, comfortable ending but one of empowerment nonetheless. Too often, politically charged stagings of Shakespeare intended to impress women's disenfranchisement upon the audience leave us with women in some way deprived of their personhood at the end. That is an important statement, I grant; but equally important is seeing a play in which the women end up not just empowered but also in control of their own and their society's destiny. That is a happy ending.

Eric Minton
July 11, 2017

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