Monday, September 5, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2011)

The Play: Measure for Measure.

Directed by: Bill Rauch, Artistic Director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Genre & Setting: When we last encountered Measure for Measure – in the BBC version, which of course sucked – I described it as “One of the comedies, but more in the old-fashioned sense of “giving away that there’s a happy ending” than in the modern sense of “funny.” This time around, I’m upgrading it to a “serious comedy,” a play that blends plentiful comic elements with dark dramatic situations and a reasonably brisk critique of the idea of legislating morality.

The OSF’s production was set in “The City of Venice,” a modern American town with a sizeable Hispanic population. And a duke. It is framed by a set of songs, in Spanish, by a remarkably talented female mariachi trio. Shakespeare didn’t exactly specify this treatment in the stage directions, but they didn’t really have mariachi back then, and anyway Shakespeare’s stage directions are notoriously minimalist.

The Gist: The Duke heads out of town, or so he says, leaving an inexperienced but morally impeccable assistant, Antonio, in charge. Antonio is a big believer in the rule of law, and quickly sets about enforcing statutes that, though still on the books, have been ignored for decades. As a case in point, he condemns a young dude named Claudio to death for having got a young woman with child, despite that the young woman enjoyed the process and is making no complaints.

Claudio’s sister Isabella, a… novitiate, is it? No, apparently novice is the word. Apprentice nun sort of thing. Anyway, she goes to Angelo to plead on her brother’s behalf. She’s sharp as a tack, Isabella is, but her various arguments all break against Angelo’s the-law-is-the-law obstinacy. Except!  As they argue Angelo starts to find this lovely, intelligent woman rather alluring. He wrestles with temptation for a while, but not all that long really, before radically compromising his commitment to morality, law, and chastity all in one fell swoop, offering Isabella a pardon that will spare her brother’s life if she will get horizontal with him.

Isabella decides that she’d rather have her virtue than her brother, a decision that both she and Claudio understandably have mixed feelings about. Fortunately -- I guess -- the Duke has snuck back into town disguised as a friar to check up on how Angelo is doing. And it’s at this point that Measure for Measure, like a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, makes the leap from an interesting set-up into sheer creepy weirdness. For the Duke doesn’t just undisguise himself in order to impress on Angelo the concept of precedent, the virtues of moderation, or the quality of mercy [hint: it isn't strained].  No, he sets into motion a batshit scheme that involves (1) executing random prisoners so that people, seeing a corpse, will think their loved ones have been killed; (2) pulling a switcheroo so that somebody has sex with person A thinking that they are having sex with person B; and (3) letting several people believe they have been condemned to death in order to teach them a lesson. Or maybe just for a laugh. It’s hard to tell. One wonders what period audiences would have made of the Duke; to a modern crowd, he’s somewhere between eerily capricious and certifiable.

The Adaptation: I don’t know if they talk about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival out your way, but here in the Beaver State we think of it as quite the deal. It is a most-of-the-year festival in the charming little tourist/college town of Ashland, down near the California border, one of a medium sized cluster of towns but very remote indeed from major population centers. They keep eight or nine plays going a day during the high season, and they are always pretty top notch as far as I can tell. With this caveat: I grew up in a town of 2200 and was under the impression for much of my early life that Coos Bay, Oregon, was a “big city.” I think it stands to reason that anything I might have to say about live theater can be dismissed out of hand.

The OSF’s present-day framing of the play was idiosyncratic, but it worked in part just because of the strength of the musicians. It also opened the door to other weirdnesses, like an executioner who resembled a sinister, taciturn Michael Jackson, and a slate of minor characters including a drag queen, a pimp, and sundry other pop culture stereotypes. All were played for laughs with plenty of physical humor and sight gags, which helped keep things appropriately comic.  We were entertained.

And really, people who stage this Measure for Measure must really wrestle with how to leave people feeling amused at the end of it. After all, up until the last few minutes the Duke allows Isabella to believe that her brother has been beheaded because she wouldn’t put out for Angelo.  That isn't funny. Neither is the endgame, in which the Duke suddenly unveils a relieved Claudio – surprise! – scolds Angelo, wraps up a subplot (I'm talking about Lucio, for those of you following along in the text) with another draconian bit of despotism, and then gives Isabella the happy news that he has been so impressed with her that she gets to marry him! Here are the final lines of the play as written:
Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine.
So, bring us to our palace; where we'll show
What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know.
What the OSF did with this, quite brilliantly I thought, was to have the Duke stop after “what is yours is mine,” leaving it hanging in the air as a proposal rather than a command. Isabella, portrayed very reasonably as more stunned than delighted by the Duke’s offer, slowly moved to mid-stage, where a podium and microphone had been set up for the Duke’s earlier welcome-home speech. She bent to the microphone, drew breath to give her answer, and the theater cut immediately to black. It was a surprising and very funny way to end the play without compromising Isabella for a modern audience, at the cost only of what is in any event a pretty weak closing couplet.

Prognosis: Nice! I highly recommend having a brother in Ashland, as it makes seeing plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival both convenient and affordable!

1 comment:

mrs.5000 said...

Nice review! The city was actually Vienna, not Venice--OK, there's not a German-sounding name in the batch, but neither is there a Doge.