Measure for Measure
nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
February 19, 2007
After seeing a Blessed Unrest production for the first time last evening, I thought about how appropriate the company's name is. Their presentation of Measure For Measure in association with the Interart Development Series at the Women's Interart Theatre is an explosion of music, dance, and found text. It succeeds more often than not in bringing the story to immediate life and it will leave you thinking about the text afterwards in a way that a "straight" telling would not.
Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, has given up his authority to Angelo, a man intent on bringing strict moral reform to the Viennese and its corrupt underworld. Aided by Escalus, his far more reasonable and realistic colleague, Angelo imposes a draconian sentence of death on the young lover Claudio for sleeping with and impregnating his beloved Julietta before marriage. At the time, there was a contract known as per verba de praesenti, an oath pledging marriage, not unlike a modern engagement. Since it was tolerated for a couple to be sexually active if they had the contract, Claudio is condemned to death for an offense of which he is innocent under the law.
His sister Isabella, a novice almost as equally absolute in her moral convictions as Angelo, goes to plead for her brother's life. Upon seeing her, Angelo is tortured with lust and—grossly abusing his position of power and authority—tells her in that he will release Claudio only if Isabella sleeps with him. As he tells her when she refuses and threatens to expose him for the hypocrite that he is, "Who will believe you Isabel...Say what you can: my false o'erweighs your true."
Meanwhile, the Duke, disguised now as a friar, has never left Vienna. He has orchestrated his disappearance so that Angelo can enforce the laws that the Duke had let slip during his reign. It's a classic case of a boss bringing in a manager to fire people so that he himself escapes resentment and blame. Really, no character escapes criticism for either moral hypocrisy or absolutism in this play except for Mariana, the dejected former fiancée of Angelo. She pleads to the Duke for his life in the final scene. Her argument is an open-hearted and humane one, that human beings are made better by past mistakes and can learn from their transgressions.
The production takes place on a bare stage with the only prop being a bathtub. It's used charmingly at the top of the show as a private space for Claudio and Julietta; as Mariana's moated grange; and, in one of the most original and fascinating moments, a bed (for the bed-trick, usually not shown on stage). The bed-trick was an Elizabethan play device where one woman is substituted for another in the dark in order to trick the man into sleeping with her and thus forcing him into marriage. If you are not familiar with the play, I won't give away who sleeps with who, but if you are, I can tell you, its one of those moments where Jessica Burr's vigorous and imaginative direction really shines.
The ensemble as a whole is excellent. There are a few standouts. Craig Bridger, as Angelo, finds the humor in a supremely humorless character in his dry and understated delivery. Celli Pitt as Mariana not only has a gorgeous and powerful singing voice, she delivers the best interpretation of Mariana I have seen. Usually portrayed as simple and naive, Pitt shows her to be a woman of strength and conviction. She will not be moved, but her strength comes from compassion.
Laura Wickens plays Isabella and her interpretation made me think the most about her character's motives. At first, it seems that Wickens is overplaying. She opens her eyes wide, uses melodramatic gestures to show shock at Angelo's threats. Her delivery is so sweet and innocent, you begin to wonder, is Isabella really innocent or is she playing so? Does she know what Angelo might suggest or is she truly shocked? It's a really bold choice to overact in that way and trust that the audience will get it.
The music by Gogol Bordello is another great and unexpected addition. In a group number before intermission the whole cast wildly dances to "Illumination," a raucous klezmer-gypsy-punk number that perfectly express the decadence, corruption, and energy of the play's setting and characters. Choreography by Kelly Hayes also shows the inner life of the characters and while it didn't interfere with the understanding of the show at all, I didn't feel it was as revealing as choices already made by the actors. For example, I already knew from Zenzele Cooper's nuanced portrayal as Escalus that she was conflicted about her role in carrying out Claudio's decrees without her silent dance solo.
Also, there are found text excerpts from the 13th-century poet Rumi and Sharon Olds spoken by Julietta (Eunjee Lee). Again, these aren't hurtful in anyway to the production, they just don't illuminate the text as brilliantly as all the other choices.
Overall, this production is truly an original and strong one. I highly recommend it.