MEASURE FOR MEASURE
by William Shakespeare
Bard on the Beach
June 14-Sept. 23
Here’s a Shakespearean riddle. What do you get when you cross a manipulative hero, a frosty heroine, unfunny comedy, and a rapist whose punishment is marriage? Answer: Measure for Measure. No wonder academics have classified it as “a problem play.” The problem is to figure out how to make sense of this puzzle full of interesting conundrums for an audience and terrific challenges for any director.
Shakespeare sets the play in Vienna, where permissive Duke Vincentio decides to take a break, leaving hard-ass Angelo in charge. Angelo immediately cracks down on immorality, shutting the brothels and sentencing Claudio to death for knocking up his girlfriend.
Director Kathryn Shaw sets her Bard on the Beach production in what looks like Mussolini’s Italy, with Angelo and his police in jackboots and black fascist uniforms on Kevin McAllister’s icy-cold, stark metallic set. Ominous announcements boom through loudspeakers and the opening scene is straight out of Cabaret.
We see the abuse of power up close when Claudio’s sister Isabella (Karen Rae), a novice nun in a white habit, comes to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. Finding himself in lust, hypocritical Angelo offers her amnesty in return for her virginity. Many complications ensue when the Duke, disguised as a friar, overhears the dastardly plot and arranges a series of counterplots of his own to foil the villain, teach some moral lessons, and restore order to his seriously disordered state.
Scott Bellis, brilliant as the clownish Bottom in Bard’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is once again at the top of his game here. As the obsessive Duke he owns the stage, dominating his every scene. Bellis never tries to physicalize the Duke’s strength. It radiates from his clear intelligence, perfect timing, and conversational control of the language. He never declaims. But it’s hard to like the Duke as he gets caught up in his own power trip, stage-managing every detail of the others’ lives, including arranging one of the worst marriages in history. Shaw directs the bizarre final scene very effectively, revealing creepy Vincentio himself as perhaps the ultimate fascist.
Ian Butcher’s nasty Angelo is effectively restrained but Karen Rae has less success with Isabella, always a difficult character for modern audiences because she’d rather sacrifice her brother’s life than her own virtue. With a tendency to look up and out as if speaking directly to God, Rae distances her Isabella from us even more.
The comic subplot is rarely funny. Josue Laboucane pushes much too hard as dim constable Elbow, though Allan Zinyk as the bawd Pompey has his moments and Haig Sutherland gets some laughs as obnoxious man-about-town Lucio. But what’s with Lucio’s ridiculously broad lapels? Even master costumer Mara Gottler can’t quite seem to crack this puzzle.