Measure for Measure
The balance between justice and mercy, repentance, forgiveness, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy are themes laid bare in Shakespeare’s "Measure for Measure," a commentary on the Puritanical movement of Seventeenth Century England playing at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at the Old Globe in Balboa Park.
Known for walking the line between comedy and drama, "Measure for Measure" is part of a trio of works which became known as the "problem plays" around the mid-1890s. Previously thought unapproachable compared to Shakespeare’s more traditional works which clearly fall into three established styles, the plays experienced a renaissance thanks to the growing influence of playwrights like Henrik Ibsen who, at the time, were creating works of theatre that put forth a message addressing some of the more contemporary problems facing society.
With a renewed interest and lens with which to explore these works, the problem plays gained new life and are often the focus of attention for theatre students learning Shakespearean poetry and prose.
Staged in conjunction with the University of San Diego’s Graduate Theatre Program, San Diego’s newest rendition is an honest, albeit flat, attempt to bring this story of judicial balance to life.
Duke Vincentio (Christopher Salazar), the Duke of Vienna, decides to take respite from his duties and leaves the moralistic Angelo (Matthew Bellows) in charge while he is away. Angelo believes that the Duke has been lax in his rule and, in his absence, decides to clean up the amoral activities he sees happening with more regularity.
He quickly arrests a man named Claudio (Adam Gerber). Accused of impregnating his fiancée before their wedding vows were exchanged, he is immediately sentenced to death as an example to others who may also wish to engage in some unscrupulous behavior.
When his sister Isabella (Whitney Wakimoto), a soon-to-be nun, learns of her brother’s fate, she sets off in a quest to save his life. She pleads with Angelo to spare her sibling to which he reluctantly agrees with condition. Attracted to her purity, innocence and chastity, Angelo promises to let Claudio go if Isabella agrees to sleep with him. Caught in a web of scruples and hypocrisy, Isabella must find a way to retain her virtue while sparing her dear brother’s life.
In a production that muddles comedy and drama, directors often try to create stark contrast between the two in order to accentuate the humor and deepen the drama. In this particular staging it seemed that director Ray Chambers tried drawing too much contrast. The dramatic lines at times seemed tedious, bordering on monotonous. In one scene Isabella is seen pleading for her own brother’s life but it lacked emotion and thus believability.
There are moments when each of the actors shines. Bellows plays a wonderfully despicable heavy while Wakimoto lends a sense of innocence and balance. Jeremy Fisher’s Lucio, a character connected to all of the seedy creatures in the underbelly of Vienna, provides a great deal of the comic relief and delivers with precision. Especially delightful are the moments he unwittingly slams the Duke unbeknownst to him that the Duke is in disguise and taking the brunt of his insults.
Not to be forgotten is Elisa Benzoni’s superb, and detailed, costuming. I’m not the type of man to notice shoes but no element was ignored right down to a matching pair of bright aqua or seafoam green heels. Though they were covered by yards of fabric and hardly noticeable, that attention to detail creates a more polished and professional feel. In a production that is trying so hard to create dichotomy, no aspect of this production hit its target closer than the costuming.
Another mention must be made of Sean Fanning’s scenic design. Simplistic but not understated and mirroring some of the dichotomous themes of the show, Fanning made this production in the round accessible and functional.
Balance really is the key word for this latest rendition of Shakespeare’s "Measure for Measure." Though there is some room for improvement in this staging, there are some moments of brilliance as well and those moments can make an audience very forgiving.