Measure for Measure
nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
January 21, 2005
It was truly a pleasure to attend Oberon Theatre Ensemble's Measure for Measure: it's a no-pomp/no-frills production to be sure, with a congenial, Casual Friday feel. It's classic, pearl-in-an-oyster off-off-Broadway, right down to the slightly scruffy 75-seat studio theatre venue.
The plot in a nutshell: Duke Vincentio, ruler of Vienna, decides to go undercover to find out why the domain has fallen into corruption and appoints Angelo, an upstanding, exemplary cold fish, to reign in his absence. After Vincentio makes his mysterious disappearance, Angelo quickly turns into a zealot attempting to purge Vienna of lust, debauchery, etc., etc. He tries to make an example of Claudio, a young man who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, by sentencing him to death. Claudio’s sister, the ultra-virtuous Isabella, about to take her final vows as a nun, pleads with Angelo to be merciful. But instead of seeing reason, Angelo unexpectedly—and to his own great disgust—becomes consumed with lust for Isabella. His ultimatum: if Isabella abandons her holy values for one night and sleeps with him, then and only then will he spare Claudio’s life. Will she, won’t she? That is but one of the play’s questions and one of the few that actually gets answered.
Measure for Measure is widely acknowledged by critics and historians as Shakespeare's most serious (and least popular) comedy. Yet ironically, one of the most attractive production aspects of the play is that it's smaller in scope, more specific in plot and, even textually, more accessible to 21st century sensibilities than most of Shakespeare’s works. The characters, most of them unsympathetic and unsentimentally drawn, are, nonetheless, very engaging, very human, and very timeless.
Eric Parness' direction is refreshingly brisk and to the point. I particularly appreciated hearing the beautiful text spoken so naturally and elegantly by the diverse, all American cast. Fortunately, Parness never allows his actors to fall too much in love with their speeches, so the action rarely lags. The set consists of a chair here, a table there. The costuming by Sidney Shannon is modern era, although special mention should be made of Mistress Overdone's outfit, which should be seen rather than described. Some of the physical comedy, while appropriate to the characters, doesn't entirely work simply because it's a bit too over the top for such a small venue and sometimes appears forced. But these are minor quibbles. The performances are commendable all around.
In the lead role, Gordon Stanley is such a pro that he can make the Duke's theatrical machinations seem almost plausible. His Vincentio is as much a hypocrite as anyone in the play, but he doesn't bother with piety. His concern for the decline of morals in the duchy has more to do with his ego-bashed public image than altruism towards his subjects. He clearly enjoys stalking Angelo from the sidelines, and the way he manipulates Isabella into believing her brother is dead is downright cruel. Eloquent, maturely handsome and sexy, Stanley plays the Duke as smitten with Isabella early on, so the main driver of this production seems to be the Angelo-Isabella-Vincentio "love" triangle. But at the end, of course, the joke is on the Duke—though he wins Isabella's hand, he must resign himself to the fact that only God has her heart.
As Isabella and Angelo, Jessica Burr and Walter Brandes appear to be playing against type, which is interesting to watch. Mostly it works, but sometimes—in the most critical moments—it doesn’t quite. Both are talented, accomplished actors; both are very attractive, charming and (despite their characters) warm.
Brandes’s Angelo, at the beginning of the play, is less the righteous man whose urine comes out ice (as described by one character), more a sanctimonious, fresh-out-of-Princeton corporate brat made king for a day. But at the end, his encounter with Isabella has, for better AND worse, left him infinitely more human. Brandes is best when he is left alone on the stage to struggle with his stricken conscience and raging hormones, but losing the battle even while, quite literally, flagellating himself. He also has some wonderful Bill Clinton moments in the second half as he plays the cheesy, guilty-guilty-guilty politician pained at the accusations publicly leveled against him. Yet at the end it’s obvious his desire for Isabella still plagues him.
Jessica Burr is a lovely young woman with a natural effervescence that truly manifests itself in the scenes where Isabella collaborates with Vincentio and Mariana in Angelo’s downfall. It seems an odd moment for her to take such animated, girlish pleasure in the Duke’s machinations, especially since her brother is just supposed to have died. But Burr’s Isabella seems to have no use whatsoever for any man except the Son of God. Perhaps Burr and director Parness are, in fact, committing to the Elizabethan feminine ideal of unattainability—which would explain why I found the much-anticipated “seduction” scenes with Angelo frustrating. Even Isabella’s most eloquent entreaties for Claudio’s life are colored by a condescending remoteness and purity to the point of sexlessness. I had a hard time believing that Angelo could have any real attraction to her, save as an intellectual equal. I would have preferred to see Isabella allowed some sensuality which I’m quite sure would have better served Burr’s talent as well as the play.
Almost all the actors in supporting roles do double duty. Christine Verleny is all grace in the thankless role of Mariana, Angelo's unfairly spurned betrothed who gets a more-bitter-than-sweet second chance at the union. She's also very funny as Francesca, a nun in Isabella's order, who is all business with the novitiates but all girlish giggles in the presence of a strange man. Philip Emeott steals every scene he’s in as the very mercenary, very tacky bawd (pimp) Pompey and then turns up later as sedate Friar Peter. Similarly, Karen Sternberg does a delicious turn as trashy “working girl” Mistress Overdone watching her livelihood flash before her eyes. Sternberg later plays poor knocked-up Juliet, another undeserving victim of Angelo’s “moral purge.”
As Isabella's condemned brother, Jordan Meadows plays Claudio less as a man facing execution at dawn than as a man who has simply been extremely inconvenienced. (Well, he DOES wear a golf shirt…) Even in the scene when Claudio begs Isabella to give herself to Angelo so that he, Claudio, might be spared, I never got the sense that he ever had any terrifying moment of desperation or comprehension that he MIGHT ACTUALLY DIE. But Meadows is a hoot in the smaller role of Froth, a clueless, taciturn yokel who gets called on the carpet for making a cuckold of Elbow the Constable, played with all the stops out by Brad Fryman. Jarel Davidow is quite memorable as Claudio's "friend" Lucio (the type that makes enemies unnecessary), a loud, very obnoxious liar and braggart, who doesn't realize he's slandering the Duke to his face.
Special commendation part 1 goes to Ian Pfister who plays the overworked, long-suffering Escalus, right-hand man to the Duke and then to upstart Angelo. Despite the faeade of icy detachment, Pfister's Escalus watches Angelo's moral scouring of Vienna with a growing dismay in his eyes that proves he is truly a human being with a conscience—yet too loyalty-bound to his office to act. Then in the scene that gets the biggest laughs of the evening, Pfister also plays Abhorson, a stony faced, by-the-book, jarhead executioner who gets stuck with Pompey for an assistant. Pfister uses his lean physique and striking but ageless features to full advantage in each role, and he is unforgettable.
Special commendation part 2 goes to the fabulous James T. Ware as Provost, whose duty it is to carry out Angelo's order for Claudio's execution meanwhile seething inside at its injustice. Unlike Escalus, who remains a neutral spectator, Ware's guilt-ridden Provost immediately embraces his opportunity to act on principle—even surreptitiously—the moment a certain fake friar slips it into his “In” box. Ware delivers a tough, no-nonsense, but deeply compassionate performance that especially resonates in 2005 as America grapples with its own culpability in the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.
On that note, I highly recommend OTE's Measure for Measure, not only as a very entertaining production, but as a great way to initiate even the most vehement Shakespeare-phobe into the world of classic theater and prove just how relevant and accessible the Bard's work can really be— without any whiff of dummying down.