My companions at Spiro Veloudos' staging at the Publick Theatre were quite cross with the play, outraged by the way the characters are jerked around and then paired off-- but they decided that the blame lay properly with William Shakespeare's script, and not with Veloudos' production. I quite like Shakespeare's script; and I was engaged by the production, because although I have read that "Measure" is often updated to a contemporary setting, the Publick's is the first in modern dress that I have seen. Watching a bespectacled bureaucrat in a well tailored suit descend into sexual sadism, and from there to an appalling cover-up, it suddenly hit me how similar the emotions and issues of Shakespeare's main plot are to those of Ariel Dorfman's contemporary morality play about the Argentine junta, "Death and the Maiden". Under what social arrangements are the darkest sexual impulses given reign-- license or repression? How can citizens go on living side by side, once they have known each other as victims and torturers? Grappling with such matters' cruel contradictions is an unpleasant exercise, but I credit Shakespeare and Veloudos for the intelligent audacity with which they have gone about the grappling in "Measure for Measure." And my companions joined me in crediting a strong cast and Diego Arciniegas' magnificent performance as Angelo for making these ancient abstract matters matter today.
The tale begins thus: a betrothed couple, Claudio and Julietta, have been intimate before their wedding. As a result Julietta finds herself unmarried and pregnant. This is not a matter that has been taken very seriously in sex saturated Vienna under the lax and reclusive Duke Vincentio. Unfortunately for the lovers, the Duke decides that it is time to reform society's lax morals, and so he turns the government over to a member of the strictest law and order faction, his (self -?) righteous deputy, Angelo. Angelo cracks down by closing the whorehouse of Mistress Overdone, arresting her pander, Pompey, condemning Claudio to death by beheading, and putting poor Julietta in prison. Claudio's amoral but amusing crony Lucio goes to the convent of the Poor Clares to tell Claudio's sister Isabella, a postulant of the order, about her brother's sentence, and urges Isabella to go to Angelo to beg for her brother's life. Isabella goes, and pleads with Angelo to look into his own soul and consider that all humans are fail when it comes to sexual temptation. Wisdom advises that justice in such cases be tempered with mercy. But Angelo is determined to make Claudio an example, a privileged poster boy proving that the wages of fornication are as deadly for the upper crust as they will be for the panders and prostitutes if they don't all clean up their acts. But then, suddenly, in mid lecture, Isabella's eloquence and passion inspire in chilly Angelo a burning impulse which he is shocked to identify as lust. After floundering around for a bit, he adds to his dismissal of the fair petitioner a postscript-- come and plead him him again later, in private. He may be in a more forgiving mood. Meanwhile, the Duke has not really left town, but has disguised himself as a foreign priest, one Friar Ludowick, and is keeping an eye on Angelo. As Ludowick, Vincentio presents himself as spiritual consul to Isabella, and sets in motion a series of puppet master deceptions and manipulations that are supposed to test everyone's character and work for justice and the greater good-- but which look an awful lot like a kid carrying out scientific experiments on the family pets. One of these manipulations is the notorious "bed trick". Angelo offers to exchange Claudio's life for his sister's virtue: sexual harassment in spades. Friar Ludowick advises Isabella to go along with the wicked proposition, but set the terms of engagement so that Angelo can be kept in the dark about the real identity of his sexual partner. In fact, the ruthless rapist will be taking the virginity of his discarded but still willing betrothed, one Mariana of the Moated Grange.
This is the only play I can think of in which I wish it had been possible for Shakespeare to stage a sex scene. I would like to know how Angelo behaved, and how he expected the saintly Isabella to behave, in bed. I would like to know how Mariana, who loves Angelo and presumably goes eagerly to his embrace, responds to Angelo's lust while she is pretending to be Isabella. Most of all, I would like to know whether his bed partner's response plays any part in Angelo's most wicked deed of all, his decision to have Claudio beheaded in spite of Isabella's presumed sacrifice. Only then, I imagine, would I understand what lesson it is that Angelo is to be taught in the final -- unsatisfactory-- scene.
Within the Publick's generally modern set (by Brent Wachter), Toni Bratton Elliot's costuming details are eccentric enough so that it's very difficult to place the characters in a particular class, country, or year. The state officials wear classic business suits, and are not particularly impressive in their middle management worsted without emblems of office or rank or wealth. Vienna's constabulary is in modern uniform, and this includes the headsman. Elbow, the misapprehending constable, is adorable in his Officer Friendly outfit, and Geoffrey Burns makes the most of his side-splitting old jokes. Nuns and friars are in full medieval drag. Julietta (Traci Crouch) wears a sort of ankle length A-line of no particular era, and although she is described as "near her time", she would only be perceived as pregnant by someone with a side view and a suspicious eye. Crouch gives Julietta dignity and presence, but the meekness with which Julietta accepts her draconian punishment seems unnatural in a "modern" woman. Jennifer Valentine's Mariana is dressed like a free spirit in printed off the shoulder gypsy gauze-- no wonder buttoned-up Angelo rejects her as insufficiently proper for an official's wife, once her fortune is lost at sea. Valentine's Mariana seems unsurprized when the Duke doffs his disguise, which made me wonder about all those hours she spent pouring out her troubles to him when he was Ludowick. Nevertheless, her Mariana is also very loving towards the disgraced Angelo, and fierce in his defense. Beth Gotha's Mistress Overdone is tarted up like a dance hall dolly in short skirt, net stockings, sequins and rhinestones. She's tawdry and likable, but not much of a strain on Gotha's talents. Robert Saoud's Pompey, in Hawaiian shirt, is authentic small time sleaze. Clifford Allen's Lucio, a very with it kind of comic character, wears long hair and a zoot suit, and carries the comic strain from the low life dives into the upper reaches of Viennese society. Allen tosses off Lucio's transgressions with a light touch. Impressive Job Emerson will be an ideal Escalus once he is word perfect in his lines. Michael Turvin's Claudio is garbed in kakis, crew cut, T-shirt and sports a tattoo-- a rebel without a cause? Turvin plays a Claudio who is too tough and too averse to poetry to wring our hearts in his great prison scene, but at times he does allow a vulnerability to peek out around his rebel's sharp edges.
Isabella's equally startling garb consists of a small white wimple veil, suitable for postulants, worn over a floor length brown gown with a neckline cut much lower than modesty would allow in a nunnery during any era I can imagine. Presumably the costume is exposing Isabella's subtext as well as her bosom-- but I don't see the hidden lust in Shakespeare's lines, or in Laura Yosowitz 's performance of them. I must admit, all I do see in Yosowitz 's interpretation is rhetorical intelligence and a robust self regard. The actress is outstandingly beautiful, but relentlessly pragmatic in sensibility, resisting either an historically plausible extreme purity and or a Freudian neurotic frigidity as interpretation. When Yosowitz tells her brother he deserves to die because he is a disgusting over sexed prick who would pimp his own sister, her Isabella is like a prom queen reacting to a social slight-- more pissed off than either horrified or hysterical. If Isabella doesn't in some sense idolize her brother, if she isn't in anguish at his transgression and searching her soul to find forgiveness, the wind-up at the end condemns both her and the Duke. Indeed, Yosowitz agrees. Her Isabella responds to the Duke's proposal of marriage by slapping him across the face-- take that for putting me through all this, you bully!-- and then she embraces her kneeling suitor for a thoroughly earthy kiss.
Neil McGarry's Duke begins the play in extreme agitation, though exactly what the source of his agitation might be is not all clear. The lack of clarity extends to the character's motivation as McGarry sets in motion all the twists and turns of plot in this long and difficult role, and even infects the rhythm and meaning of his lines. What in the world is McGarry talking about? What does his Duke think he's doing? I have seen McGarry acquit himself very well in Shakespearean verse in previous productions, so at first I was inclined to see the agitation as interpretation rather than a good actor's losing battle with a part that is beyond him. The tension in the opening scenes might be the set up of a spy thriller. Could it be McGarry's Duke recognizes that his plan may be dangerous, even disastrous? Has his Duke come up with this plan because he has severe doubts about his ability to govern, and does he intend to disappear permanently into a monastery if his substitutes prove superior? Or, as he later claims, is it all a premeditated trap to catch Angelo, about whom he has his suspicions? If it is, the Duke's agitation might be due to a realistic fear that Angelo is not only a villain but a very smart one who will anticipate the Duke's trap and set one of his own to steal the Ducal power permanently. If so, wouldn't the Duke take a few bodyguards? Wouldn't such a clever Duke have provided himself with convincing proofs of his identity and office, to whip out once Angelo has fallen into abuse and corruption? But McGarry's "disguise" consists of donning a brown robe. There is no other change in his face, hair, voice, or posture. That Angelo and his old friend Escalus fail to recognize the Duke when he simply puts on a robe boggles belief. That various characters turn to him for confession and absolution is shocking. That the Duke whips off the brown Friar's robe to reveal his nondescript suit and is instantly obeyed by all is preposterous. I am afraid that McGarry thinks so too, and that his failure with the role is proof that for him it is beyond belief.
Richard LaFrance clearly agrees. LaFrance's sympathetic and perceptive Provost does recognize his boss, and goes along with Friar Ludowick's radical interference with Vienna's prison and due process because he knows Duke Vincentio will reward his Provost's lawbreaking when he resumes his ducal power. It is a justifiable interpretation, but one that makes the minor character of the Provost the center of the second half of the play. At that point the Provost's only person around who isn't either reprehensible or a blind fool..
This leaves Angelo as the only serious character, the whole burden of
sin and repentance on him. Diego Arciniegas can carry it,
however-- he is simply the best Angelo I have ever seen. Arciniegas
is prim and repressed, but with such an appetite for repression that he
must be dimly aware of other appetites roiling like molten lava below his
iron control. He is conscious of his superiority, but also sincerely reluctant
to take on ducal power-- as if deep in his cold heart he knew that he was
not to be trusted. Lucio and Angelo have similar trajectories in
the play. Lucio, the ordinary sensual man, is pulled down by his
foolishness and vanity. There is no point in the law's punishing
him too harshly: he can't be much better or much worse than the common
run, no matter what the rules. Angelo's sins are worse because they
are of the spirit, and once he has fallen off his pedestal, committed consciously:
"now I give my sensual race the rein...I'll prove a tyrant". His
self regard passes mere vanity and becomes evil because it is coupled with
a cold disregard for others. Even in his remorse, Arciniegas' Angelo
is conscious only of himself, and of how far he has fallen short of his
own standards of superiority. He is perfectly sincere when he says
to the Duke, "I crave death more willingly than mercy; 'Tis my deserving,
and I do entreat it." His Angelo's genuine relief when he discovers
that his cruelest orders have not been carried out amounts to a conversion
to empathy, and the humble hope with which he looks at Mariana at the end--
as if suddenly grasping that he might be taught by mercy to love, and by
love to have mercy-- is heart stopping, almost redeeming the muddle of
the rest of the denouncement.