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|Bruce Chadwick||August 24th 2012|
|Scene from Measure for Measure|
The Duke of Vienna has told his constituents that he is leaving town for a few weeks to travel but actually disguises himself as a friar in order to observe what is going on in his absence. He appoints a tough judge, Angelo, to run things while he is gone. As soon as Angelo takes over, he gets the case of Claudio, who had sex with his wife without the marriage having been officially recognized, technically a crime under a bizarre Viennese law that carries the death penalty. He sentences him to death. Claudio’s girlfriend nearly collapses, but his good-looking sister, Isabella, about to enter a nunnery, goes to see Angelo to free Claudio.
Judge Angelo lusts after the shapely Isabella as soon as she walks into the room. The angrier she gets, the bawdier he becomes. He tries to strike a deal. He will free Claudio if she goes to bed with him. She refuses. Claudio is doomed.
That is the supermarket tabloid plot of Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare’s 1604 play, set in the eighteenth century in Drew University's production. It is an oft-told story, is it not? It could have been a headline in some newspaper this morning.
The production of Measure for Measure at the Shakespeare Theater is a solid one and is a nice addition to the lineup of their fiftieth anniversary season. It is highlighted by a superb performance by Erin Partin as the charismatic Isabella. She owns the play from the first moment she whisks on to the stage, long curly blonde hair flying, until the final moments, when justice wins out over evil.
Shakespeare’s story is one-dimensional and rather simple. The secretive Duke hatches a plot to save Claudio and get revenge on Angelo while everybody else works hard to prevent Claudio from losing his head (technically, this is one of Shakespeare's comedies). In the end, the Duke comes to understand that he needs to be far more involved in running his city than he has been.
The comedy/drama has always been considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. It is not a very funny comedy and not a very strong drama. You sort of figure out the ending by the beginning of the second act. Except for Isabella, the characters are rather cardboardish. The overall force of the play is good, but the pace drags from time to time, especially in the middle of the first act. The actors are all good but Sean Mahan, who plays the Judge, needs to re-define his character. He is just not menacing enough and his lackluster persona is not as convincing as it could be. There is a long stretch of dialogue between Angelo and Isabella that is flat because Angelo has seemingly run out of steam. There are scenes that are just ridiculous, such as Angelo bedding down with his old girlfriend and really thinking he is with Isabella. Come on!
The Duke (played by Bruce Turk), is pretty good until the end of the story. He is a justice-seeking friar throughout the play but then turns into an eighteenth-century version of Judge Judy at the end. Particularly delightful is Greg Jackson as Lucio, a very funny guy who meets up with the Duke as a friar and in wonderful language tells him how awful the Duke is. He is a delight.
Another problem of the play is the politics that we don’t see and the history that we are not told. The Duke runs Vienna. That’s it. We don’t learn a thing about the city, its politics or its history. How did the Duke come to power? Who are his political allies? Do the people like him? City councils? Tribunals? Taxes? Why is the Duke successful? Who threatens him? How come he’s in his forties and never married?
Whether the play is set in 1604, as in its original version, or the eighteenth century, it still overlooks the fascinating history of Vienna. In the late 1500s and throughout the 1600s, the Viennese battled the armies of the Ottoman Empire. There was much political intrigue. In the early 1800s the city surrendered to Napoleon twice, was host to the Congress of Vienna, and served as the capital for the Habsburg Empire throughout the period. There was massive industrialization, a boom in population, constant flooding of the Danube and vicious anti-Semitism. It was perfect for theater plots, yet none of this is mentioned in the play. Couldn’t Shakespeare have dropped in line or two about the Ottoman attacks? Couldn’t later directors add thirty seconds of dialogue about Vienna in the 1800s? It would have helped.
Bonnie Monte has done a good job of directing a wobbly play. In addition to Jackson and Partin, she earned fine performances from Adam Burns as the Duke’s aide, Jean Burton Walker as Mistress Overdone, Raphael Nash Thompson as Pompey, Lindsay Smiling as the Provost (jailer), Richard Bourg as Escalus, and a large and skilled ensemble.
After all the double dealing and sex in this story, you wish that Shakespeare would come back to life and serve as head writer for The Real Housewives of Vienna.
Bruce Chadwick writes for History News Network, from where this article is adapted. He lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey.