As the third performance of Wherefore: Shakespeare in Raleigh, Bare Theatre has brought Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to Chapel Hill in a unique staging at Varsity on Franklin. The play has been updated to the 1920s in Paris and channels the vestiges of poets T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Nancy Cunard. Using the movie theater’s screen as a backdrop, director of this production, and Bare Theatre’s education director, Beverly Schieman, presents the play with actual scenes from 1920s Paris.
Much has been written about Measure for Measure and whether it should actually be considered a comedy. After all, it has a supremely vile villain, a piteous heroine, a Duke who plays with lives for his own pleasure, and a series of events that can be called little associated with humor. But the play meets Shakespeare’s requirements for a comedy in that all ends well, if not satisfactorily. And though the impending death of Claudio is cause for much alarm, it may be said that the rascal is in very little actual danger; we know that all is being done to spare him despite Angelo’s wicked attempts to do him in.
Shakespeare sets up Measure for Measure this way: Duke Vincentio (Matt Schedler) has business outside Paris and has appointed a young man, Angelo (Seth Blum), to rule in his stead. This is to be a test for Angelo, who has had no real experience in ruling and hopes to please the Duke with his prowess. The Duke’s second, Escala (Joanna Herath), is to aid Angelo in his term, but Angelo’s zeal in defending the letter of the law causes him to arrest Claudio (Victor Rivera) for fornication because his fiancée, Juliet (Pimpila Violette), is pregnant. According to the letter of the law, Claudio should die for his transgression, but all who are aware of the situation say this should not be so. A friend of Claudio’s, Lucio (Stephen Wall), is sent to find Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Rebecca Blum), so that she may entreat Angelo for leniency in Claudio’s case. Isabella is well versed in such matters, and her words bear extra weight in that she is a novice nun. But when Isabella appears before Angelo, her pious demeanor enflames the villain, and he concocts a terrible exchange: If Isabella will sleep with him, Angelo will spare Claudio. If not, her brother will die.
This is not the stuff that comedies are made of. There is humor in the subplots of the story, such as the case of Pompey (Tara Nicole Williams), a baud, and her brush with the law. Also there are the shenanigans of Claudio’s friend Lucio, who recklessly discusses the Duke with a friar who is, in fact, the Duke in disguise. In order to test Angelo, the Duke has assumed a second identity so that he may observe how Angleo rules. He is not pleased with the result. But Isabella and Claudio remain in the hands of the Duke, who, although benevolent, still uses them to his own ends, causing Isabella great harm in that she believes her brother slain, despite the fact that she has succumbed to Angelo’s wishes. At least, so it seems. But Angelo, after his night of delight, sends word to the Provost (Lucinda Gainey) that Claudio is to die immediately. It is only by the intervention of the Duke and a spectacular ruse that Claudio is spared.
Bare Theatre presents Measure for Measure lightly, so that the comedic aspects of the show are played up and the dire circumstances are played down. Claudio is shunted about but in no real danger, Isabella is spared from being prey to Angelo by another exceptional ruse, and a slighted woman of Angelo’s, Mariana (Michelle Johnson), is set to wed him. By all intents and purposes, this is a comedy, though not one of the Bard’s most beloved as it begets little laughter from its circumstances. Regardless, Schieman has directed the work as comedically as possible, with little accent on villainy.
Isabella, played ably by Rebecca Blum, is by no means a typical comedic heroine. She is the most put upon of women, placed in an untenable situation, used by the Duke, led to believe her brother is dead, and spared the indignity of debauchery only by deception. And after all is said and done, after she is debased and imprisoned in order to forward the Duke’s deception, the Duke adds insult to injury by proposing marriage — to a nun! Blum handled these nuances extremely well, saying not a word at the end of the play, but withering the Duke with a look.
Measure for Measure is a fleet two hours. The text has been ably edited so that none of the ingenious deceptions were marred or deleted, and in such a way as to emphasize that if one takes the play in the manner it was intended, that there really are many a comedic devices to be had: Shakespeare rights all the wrongs that are presented to our young novice, and the offer of matrimony at the end was, at the time it was written, a boon. In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “At the end of the tale, the heroine’s always a bride.” But Shakespeare gives no words to Isabella at the end, and it is understandable that she should refuse her suitor utterly, in defense of her prior decision to assume the cloth.
So the debate continues: is Measure for Measure a comedy, or not? Bare Theatre can be said to balance the question carefully; nuances on both sides are to be had in this production. Whether you take your comedy where you can find it, or you find these situations not at all comedic, it is up to you as the viewer to decide. But if you love your Shakespeare, Bare Theatre’s production will delight; it is Shakespeare with a dash of Paris thrown in, for good measure!
Measure for Measure continues through Saturday, April 4. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.