By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
At the Stables, Shakespeare & Company
Lenox, MA, Boston (413) 637-3353 Through August 25th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Measure for Measure" is the latest offering in Shakespeare & Company 's Bare Bard series of minimalist Shakespeare productions using a handful of doubling actors plus a few well-chosen props and some symbolic costume pieces. Tina Packer directs with a firm hand, pruning away some of the more obscure smut and topical references, excising or combining minor characters, and occasionally substituting a current term of opprobrium for one that has lost its power to shock. The result is a "Measure for Measure" that is focused rather than filigreed, dependent on sheer acting power for breadth as well as depth. The actors must be able to transform in an instant from one role to the next, yet they cannot rely on simplified character sketches.

The Bare bones of the "Measure for Measure" story: the Duke of Venice ( Tommy Lee Davenport ) has allowed some of the stricter Venetian laws regulating public morality to go unenforced, and it seems that his permissiveness may have done the state harm. As an experiment, the Duke turns his powers over to two men of good reputation -- Escalus ( Karen Beaumont ), an old man known for his wisdom and experience, and Angelo ( Allyn Burrows ), a young man known for his strictness and asceticism. The Duke pretends to leave town, but instead disguises himself as a Friar to observe and manipulate the results of the new team's moral crackdown.

The reformers pull down whorehouses and jail the bawds, but the first noble victim of the puritan regime is Claudio ( Jason Asprey ), arrested and condemned to death for impregnating his fiancee Juliet ( Robin Hynek ). Lucio ( Walton Wilson ), a wastrel companion of Claudio's, visits the convent where Claudio's sister Isabella ( Karen Wold ) is a postulant and begs her to go to Angelo and plead for her brother's life -- her chastity and piety are most likely to be effective with a prig like Angelo. Isabella pleading is effective, but instead of inspiring Angelo to grant mercy, she inspires him to lust for her body. Angelo offers Isabella her brother's life -- if the chaste sister will give up her virginity to her brother's judge.

The basic Bare "Measure for Measure" costume is a black priestly garment, buttoned from neck to ankle. Under these robes are silky things in shades of red orange and yellow, fleshpot attire. Over the robes go cream-colored garments of authority. Each of the performers plays some of the lower-class denizens of the stews as well as an aristocrat or two; sometimes transforming on stage, sometimes exiting in one character and re-entering as another. In one spectacular instance Karen Beaumont, who at various times plays Escalus, Mistress Overdone, and the Provost, somehow arrests herself, condemns herself, and hauls herself off to prison -- don't ask me how, but Beaumont did it.

Davenport is an unusually vigorous and straightforward Duke, putting all his plots into motion with the assured tones of one used to strategy and command. Burrows' Angelo seems genuinely hesitant to assume the power of the state, as if aware of his latent propensity to abuse it. Once in office he relishes his severity, and then, horrified to discover his sinful nature, probes his own conduct with fascination: how far can a good man fall? At one point Angelo notices that his hands are shaking with strain, and he regards this symptom with detached curiosity. Both the Duke and Angelo share a kind of scientific attitude towards themselves and the lives that depend on them

I must say that I wish that Davenport's Duke would put on a beard and alter his voice when he turns into the Friar I don't mean to fault this production in particular. The last three "Measure for Measure"'s I have seen also have had a Duke who made no real effort at disguise, using a consistent characterization throughout and presenting himself in close conversation with his old counselor Escalus in a such a way that Escalus would have had to be blind and deaf not to have recognized him. This choice has the positive effect of making the scenes where Lucio, claiming to be one of the Duke's intimates, tells the Friar about all the Duke's sins and failings, funnier -- the bald-faced liar Lucio is looking into the eyes of the man he is traducing! But I think that the audience is meant to forget sometimes that the Friar is the Duke play-acting, and take him for a voice of conscience. This is easier to do if the Duke/Friar is a more convincing image of priestly concern.

In the present production the audience's burden of suspending disbelief is a tad heavier than usual, because the Friar and the Duke are two of the only three black people in Venice. The third is Davenport's marvelously dense Constable Elbow, a comic creation so complete and so different from the actor's other characterization that if Elbow revealed himself as the Duke in disguise I would not have wondered at the Venetians inability to spot him

The clowns come off well. Burrows flits as Froth, and bellows as Abhorson the executioner. Wilson is richly pickled as Barnadine, oily as Lucio. Jason Asprey is an endearing young Pompey-The-Bawd rather than the usual disgusting old one, and the play is none the worse for it.

Asprey's sympathetic Claudio shines in the scene where, desperate, he tries to persuade his sister Isabella that it would be noble of her to give in to Angelo to save her brother's life. Both young people are internally torn, and shocked by their own behavior -- learning in the moment what sort of stuff they are made of. Isabella is passionately attached to the ideal of purity, but she is willing to subordinate her own judgment to that of the Friar when he offers a rather equivocal way out of her cruel choice. She assumes that the celibate Friar has the moral authority to advise her, while Claudio's sexual misconduct has corrupted him so that he has lost all sense of honor:
"Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade." she spits at him.

A "first stone" system of morality is explored in "Measure for Measure" Those in authority must be free from the faults they condemn in others, and yet they must be able to recognize in their own nature the promptings that led to the others' fall.

The Friar/Duke puts Isabella through terrible trials in the last act, when she believes that her brother is dead and all that she must do to be revenged on Angelo is to be silent and let the harsh law take its course. A unspoken moral argument is mirrored on Wold's face before Isabella makes her choice and kneels to plead for Angelo to be shown mercy. A second silent argument takes place at the very end, after the Duke's sudden proposal:
"Give me your hand, and say you will be mine;
He [Claudio] is my brother too: "
-- when in mid speech Davenport looks at the shock on the face of Wold's Isabella, and for once the confident Duke's rhetoric fails him, and he falters:
"-- but fitter time for that"
Davenport's Duke has worked all this marriage business out during his experiment. Isabella has passed all the tests, proven that she is of the highest moral principle and widest empathy and therefore fit to rule. The only way the state can use her is if he makes her his Duchess. Therefore, it's only logical that .... But what if his disguises and manipulations have made it impossible for her to trust and care for him?

The Duke changes the subject, meting out punishment to Angelo for attempted rape and murder, and to Lucio for slander and fornication. The sentences are the same: marriage to an unwanted wife. Davenport glances at Isabella from time to time, trying to see what she thinks of this marriage business. What Isabella thinks, exactly, isn't clear -- but as feminists have been pointing out recently, there's certainly enough to think about, when a man who a few short minutes ago was her father-confessor and fellow celibate is now urging a very different relationship! Wold's Isabella can be seen to be thinking furiously. By the time the Duke comes back to the subject with

"Dear Isabel.
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine:-- "
Isabella has made up her mind. She gives him her hand, but slowly; and her look, though cordial, is guarded. It may be that Duchess is her true vocation. She will incline her ear and hear the Duke's "motion", but his argument had better be a good one.