July 22, 2009 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Shakespeare and Co.’s production of Measure for Measure is an atypical play in the Bard’s canon and one not often produced.
Shakespeare has treated the play rather cavalierly, setting it in Vienna but giving the characters Italian names, and so intermixing comedy and near tragedy, so that it fits in no particular genre. It is as though he had given up on real comedy, giving it a dark goodbye in this rather strange play. The plays that follow it are the great romantic tragedies.
The plot concerns sexual corruption in Vienna where the Duke (Tom O’Keef) decides to turn the city over to his deputy Angelo (Gabriel Portuondo) while he himself pretends to vanish but remains behind, garbed as monk, to observe.
Angelo, himself a secret seducer of virgins, boldly announces that offenders will be beheaded and arrests his first victim, Claudio (Ross Bennett Hurwitz), to be thrown into prison and be beheaded the next day.
Claudio’s sister Isabelle (Emily Hagburg) is in a nunnery, about to take her final vows, but when she learns of Claudio’s plight, hastens to the deputy Angelo to plead for mercy for him. However, Angelo is smitten with her chastity and instead makes her an offer: her virginity for her brother’s life, a sacrifice she declines to make.
Meanwhile the Duke in disguise is observing all, and falling in love with the pure and resisting Isabella in the bargain. Matters are eventually resolved into a happy ending by various interventions involving a “bed-trick” of female switchings and several other ploys. The play can thus end on a happy note with several couples hand in hand and the nunnery left behind. Whether or not general morality in Vienna in is forever saved is unclear, but the music is happy.
The young actors are in a cast of ten, doubling as other characters in a plot that involves at least 25 characters, all of whom are charming and talented and slip in and out of roles and costumes with alacrity. Indeed, they also manage the frequent scene shifts from prison, to nunnery, to brothel.
They display competent skill, whether thy are whether creating a poignant pleading virginal near-nun, a bawdy inhabitant of a brothel, a monk or a lecher, a towering hangman, or young man being made a sacrificial victim of a new law. All are members of the Performance Internship Program, chosen from the 87 who applied to participate in it and arrived with skills already proven but here to be honed.
Director Dave Demke has served them well, and vice-versa, and the play as a whole is enhanced by charming original songs composed by Composition Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. The singer is mainly actor Claudio, a young man who combines a lovely singing voice to his acting skills
Costumer Kelly Marie Schaefer has been busily inventive. The nun-like Isabella was magnificently garbed in white, and a special joy was the executioner, the super-tall Nathan Wolfe Coleman who, throughout the play, handled a major role of Lucio whom Shakespeare called a fantastic, which he was indeed.
Although, for many, the play is an ugly duckling among Shakespeare’s swans, it has been highly praised and loved by some of its critics including, T. S. Eliot, who admired its marvelous poetry and Wasteland/Ash Wednesday mood and plot.
This reviewer found the production and presentation of the play better than the play itself, and was glad for an opportunity to experience it.