Shakespeare’s Measure Proves All Too Timely
By Patrick Hurley
Method and Madness theatre Co. is presenting Measure for Measure, at the Mid-City Arts Center. The staging of this lesser produced Shakespeare Comedy as directed by Margaret Starbuck is in a cabaret-style. The seating is meant to immerse the audience into the action as it happens around us. And while the staging of an episodic comedy comes with its own set of challenges, the use of audience interaction at least gives the somewhat problematic text a feel of novelty and relevance. Written during the height of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, Measure for Measure suffers a little identity crisis. The embracing of tragic events is nothing new for a comedy, as we know well: tragedy plus time equals comedy. But for this particular play, the all-too happy ending for some of the characters almost serves as a deus ex machina working its way toward a denouement that is not only unsatisfying, but ultimately raises a new dramatic question. One that we extemporize out of modernity. And while the play resonates very much to the contemporary issues of sex, gender roles and the deceitful nature of men in power subjugating those around them for his own gain, it doesn’t offer much in the way of reprisal.
Set in sin-fueled Vienna, Duke Vincentio (Jesse James Thomas) is fed up with the corrupt ways of his people, but he doesn’t want to be the bad guy enforcing Vienna’s strict sex laws , so he pretends to be leave town, leaving his rigid and strict deputy Angelo (Ian Runge) in charge. The laws have rarely been enforced for more than a decade, so Angelo has plenty of fodder with which to whet his pious appetite. He immediately arrests Claudio (Kelsey Kato) for having sex out of wedlock and impregnating Juliet (Annette Bizal), a crime punishable by death. Enter Claudio’s sister Isabella (Julie Lanctot), a young woman practicing to become a nun, who goes to Angelo to beg for her brother’s life. Angelo says no to her off hand, but soon becomes enraptured by the girl’s innocence and virtue and in true misogynistic fashion offers to free Claudio if Isabella agrees to have sex with Angelo. In a scene that is surprisingly resonant with the current climate of sexual misconduct and harassment, Angelo proves, in true contradictory Shakespearean fashion to be after the same vice that he so adamantly opposes.
Meanwhile, the comedy of errors that develops as a subplot, deals with the Duke, who is now disguising himself as a Friar, hatching an ingenious plan that will not only save everyone but also teach them a valuable lesson about duplicity. The tying up of loose ends in this particular piece is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s least compelling resolutions, particularly for Isabella, who we last see being proposed to by the Duke.
Considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, which was a style that came to prominence during the 19th century realism movement in western literature, wherein contentious social issues were debated by characters on stage who represent differing points of view, Measure for Measure sits somewhere between tragedy and comedy and explores such contemporary issues as toxic masculinity, gender inequality and the despotic actions of privileged men. And while the ending may hint at ambiguity, there is little contextual reason to believe that Isabella’s silence to the Duke’s proposal is a sign of rebellion rather than demonstrative of a woman’s inability to make autonomous choices when faced with a man in power. She is ultimately voiceless. Or is she hesitant, and are we meant to believe she may refuse his hand? To a modern audience we hope for the latter.
This production does a good job of drawing the parallels from Shakespeare’s time to ours. The young cast also dives into the material enthusiastically and even when some of the scenes feel repetitive, the energy never falters. And while the production could benefit from more inclusion of the audience and perhaps lose the illusion of an “off stage,” wherein the space could be occupied by the performers at all times. Dropping theatrical illusions is one of the ways highly politicized art pulls an audience into the message and out of the illusion, much in the way Brecht intended by allowing the audience to never have to question “how” the show is happening, but rather, what is the show saying. The marriage of Brecht and Shakespeare could result in a new form of theatre that not only pays tribute to classic literature, but also ushers in a new audience, a new form, and a new lifeblood that the theatre desperately needs right now. This production starts down that road, which is exciting and worthy of note.
Measure for Measure
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Margaret Starbuck
Through August 12.
Mid-City Arts Center,
1644 S La Cienega Blvd Ste A,
Los Angeles, CA 90035
For Tickets: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3538779