12 Winters Blog

Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s Measure for Measure a must-see production

Posted in July 2021 by Ted Morrissey on July 16, 2021

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a comedy, but comedy meant something different in the seventeenth century, as did tragedy. Rooted in the traditions of Greek theater, the labels had to do with structure and the elements each sort of play was expected to have, not whether the plots were tragic or comic, as we use the terms today. The endings of each sort tend to be a telltale sign. Tragedies end in death (maybe lots of them . . . think Hamlet); comedies end in marriage (which is a polite metaphor for what is presumed to happen on the wedding night, let’s call it procreation, the opposite of death . . . think Much Ado About Nothing).

So, yes, Measure for Measure is a comedy, but the issues it raises are quite serious. Likely written and first performed in 1604, it was Shakespeare’s twelfth and final comedy (as far as we can say), and the scholarly consensus is that Will had done all he cared to with the comedic form and was ready to take on more serious subjects, subjects which fit more easily into the tragic mode. Soon to follow, then, were Othello (probably the same year, 1604), Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra (all, let’s say, 1605-1606 – definitive dating is tricky).

This summer the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has accepted the challenge of presenting this most serious of comedies – and, as one would expect, given the Festival’s tradition of excellence, director Jenny McKnight, cast and crew have created a production that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Due to Covid restrictions, it is a lean cast of only ten players, making their achievement with such a complex text even more impressive. My wife and I saw the July 14 production on an absolutely ideal night for the Globe-like open-air theater.

Set in Vienna, the city-state’s Duke, Vincentio, places his Deputy, Angelo, in charge while he goes on a long journey. Vincentio has been lax in enforcing the laws of Vienna, and the city has become rife with corruption and debauchery. Bordellos and monasteries stand side by side. Angelo, in the duke’s absence, decides to exercise his power and set Vienna in order. The first person to be caught in Angelo’s legal snare is Claudio, who has gotten his intended one, Juliet, with child before their marriage. Claudio is sentenced to death by the overzealous Angelo. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who is on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. In actuality, the Duke does not leave the city, but disguises himself as a friar.

Much of the play’s action involves Vincentio (disguised as a friar usually), Angelo, and Isabella (played by Grant Goodman, Chauncy Thomas, and Isa Guitian, respectively). It is mainly through their impassioned exchanges that Measure for Measure explores issues of morality, legality, mercy, and salvation (among other weighty topics). Isabella is the dramatic focal point, as both Vincentio and Angelo desire her and use their positions of authority to claim her (or her body at least) for their own. In this regard, Guitian manages most of the play’s heavy lifting, and she does so with admirable flair. Goodman and Thomas prove worthy sparring partners.

From our contemporary perspective, there is definitely a #MeToo aspect to the play. Given events over the last several months in particular, involving George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner (and, sadly, so on and so on), I also found myself keenly focused on what the play says about the authority of the state to enact and enforce laws without accountability. In her Director’s Note, McKnight writes, “The world of Measure for Measure is a world out of balance, particularly where gender and power are concerned. Women have little agency, Men become intoxicated with the authority and status that they possess. Characters who represent the state, characters who represent the church, characters who represent the citizenry, and characters who represent the marginalized all seek – as Isabella demands – ‘justice, justice, justice, justice’.”

The director’s description of the world being “out of balance” is communicated in myriad ways, including particularly subtle and clever ones. I noted, for example, that Vincentio and Angelo (representatives of the state) wear tunics that appear almost metallic (suggesting the state’s power and rigidity), but their cut is asymmetrical (literally, from a sartorial perspective, out of balance). Susie L. High is credited with costume design for the production. I offer only this one costume-related example, but costuming is an especially important element in the Festival production, and I would encourage paying special attention to it.

On a related note, McKnight has devised an interesting framing device involving the costuming of the players. Shakespeare is fond of using clothing metaphors as a way of suggesting characters’ deceptive natures: they appear one thing, but in truth are something quite different. Nearly every character in Measure for Measure is hypocritical to a greater or lesser degree, and McKnight’s framing device seems to play with this Shakespearean conceit.

Measure for Measure is a serious comedy, but there are definitely funny bits. Several are expertly provided by the roguish characters of Lucio (Dan Matisa) and Pompey (Nathan Stark, who also plays the condemned, Claudio). The best comic material falls to Elbow, a “simple constable” (cut from a similar cloth as Much Ado’s Dogberry), and Rondale Gray plays the part to perfection.

All the Festival players deliver strong performances, several with dual roles: Lisa Gaye Dixon (Escalus/Francisca), Christian Castro (Froth/Friar Thomas, as well as fight captain), Nora McKirdle (Juliet), and Erica Cruz Hernández (Overdone/Marina).

Measure for Measure, along with The Winter’s Tale, is playing throughout July and into the first week of August. Both are must-see productions.

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