Review: Shakespeare's MEASURE FOR MEASURE by Classic Theatre, San Antonio
by Michael Meigs
Classic Theatre's Measure for Measure places its audience in a dark, uneasy, and tainted world. Those attending seat themselves in the rows of black chairs flanking the long sides of a rectangular playing space; at the narrow ends of that virtually bare stage television monitors flicker fretfully and insistently. They show images of public spaces, parking garages, and other places that would be monitored by closed circuit television.
As the audience gathers, a man seated at a desk intently makes notes while studying one wall of monitors. Spectators are allowed and even encouraged to cross the playing area to reach the far side. Throughout the approximately two hours of the play, as you watch the unfolding action, you may also study faces of those opposite who are watching with equal intensity.
Descriptive material furnished by the company on social media and in the program state that this Measure for Measure is set in a "surveillance state." That's one acceptable interpretation, although those constantly flickering, distracting images to the sides reveal almost nothing relevant to the action. To my mind, the more powerful message from set and staging is that this is a world of voyeurism, secrets, and ambiguity, particularly sexual ambiguity.
For those who might not have done the reading, this "problem play" from Shakespeare's later years gives us a ruling duke who has neglected to have his own harsh edicts enforced (fornication and adultery carry the death penalty, at least on paper, but there's been no enforcement during his fourteen-year-reign). The duke announces his temporary departure (destination unknown) and mandates Lord Angelo full powers during his absence. Angelo is no angel, however; his resolve to rule harshly both reveals the injustice of statutes and proves his own undoing. Isabella, a novice from the convent pleads for her brother Claudio's life; Angelo suggests he might spare the man if Isabella yields her body to him -- evidence he has yielded to the temptation of exploiting his power. Claudio's impregnating his declared fiancée was a venial sin; Angelo initially commits two mortal sins: subversion of legitimate authority and his attempt to possess the body of a woman pledged to holy chastity. His offenses get worse as the plot unfolds, for he perjures himself to Isabella and breaks his promise to spare Claudio—essentially commanding a murder.
This forceful, razor-edged plot contrasts human law against Christian mandates, the powerful against the powerless, the virtuous and would-be virtuous against the dissolute, sexual appetite against chastity, and the palace against the bawdy house. Some directors of Measure for Measure make the duke a neglectful paragon of virtue, consoling the afflicted, hovering over the stews of the city, and cleverly outplaying Angelo's misdeeds.
In director Liz Fisher's staging, there's none of that. Mark McCarver as the departed duke has hectic in his blood; he watches the mechanisms he's set up and reacts with increasing emotion. Fourteen years have given him little wisdom and precious little equilibrium. His choice of Angelo is passing strange; Michael Roberts is young, apparently in his twenties, suggesting that his Angelo has neither the experience nor the discernment to undertake the heavy duties assigned to him. In any edition of this play, the Duke's nomination of Angelo is a deliberate test. In this staging, the emotions and the ages suggest that it may also be a punishment. What has the inexperienced Angelo done to cause the duke to throw him into this impossible situation?
The sharp smell of sex is particularly pungent in this staging. John Boyd and Michelle Bumgarner as Shakespeare's comic characters Pompey the bawd and Mistress Overdone the brothel keeper are frank realists; the broad and broadly comic Boyd is a treat as he argues plausibly that laws mandating sexual morality are unenforceable. Even funnier and more flamboyant is Blake Hamman as Lucio the fop, a fluttering, fan-carrying, deliciously decadent sybarite.
Gender roles are bent, as well. The provost (warden) is Katrin Blucker Ludwig; august counselor Escalus, the often regretful voice of reason, is Chelsea Bumgarner.
Standing out in sharp contrast is Randee Nelson's portrayal of Isabella, the moral compass in this morass. Nelson is unerring with Shakespeare's language. She speaks quickly, clearly, and decisively; her Isabella arouses our sympathies. The duke intervenes to spare her from making the decision constantly pressed upon her (your chastity or his life!). In this context, his scheme to substitute Angelo's jilted fiancée Mariana for Angelo's proposed nighttime tryst is a practical out for Isabella, but it provokes her to the venial sin of lying to Angelo. Moreover, the duke sends Isabella to persuade Mariana to join the deception.
I've worried at this staging, pushing it one way and another. Program material was of no help. Producing artistic director Jimmy Moore's page cites themes: unchecked power, personal freedom vs. authority, bodily autonomy, especially of women, regulation of sexual behavior, and gender roles in male-dominated society. Okay, noted. Dramaturg Elizabeth C. Ramirez provides six pages of very general remarks that would do for a lecture about Shakespeare and this text but do not address the concept of the staging. There's not a word from director Liz Fisher, a perceptive and insightful artist whom I've followed for years.
One unspoken and unprovable supposition is that the duke and his "cousin" Angelo may have been intimate with one another. Jealousy could be the motivation for the duke's obsessive monitoring, and the discovery Angelo has fallen for a woman—a novice nun!— could devastate the older man. The duke's emotional turmoil prompts his late reveal that Angelo abandoned a betrothed fiancée. It could be a factor in his persuasion of Isabella to dupe Angelo. Granted, that's all hypothetical, but in the dark and edgy atmosphere of this staging, it's not impossible.
Most of the knots of this very knotty plot are undone by the finale. Malefactors are punished (they're married off), pimp and madame are threatened but not seriously harmed, and order is restored. And then there's the unresolvable conflict between state and church, chastity and libido, symbolized as McCarver announces the duke's intention to take the chaste Isabella to wife. As the lights fade, he steps forward, stretching out a grasping hand to take possession. Nelson as Isabella, deprived by the text of any reply, stands motionless and watches him advance.
Click to view the Classic Theatre's program for Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare
Classic Theatre of San Antonio
May 11 - May 28, 2023
106 Auditorium Circle Suite 120
San Antonio, TX, 78205
May 11 - 18, 2023*
Performances Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:00 PM
*In observance of the Mother’s Day holiday, there will not be a performance on Sunday, May 14, 2023.
106 Auditorium Circle, 2nd Floor, San Antonio, TX 78205
Tickets: General admission $41.10, seniors/military/first responders $37.10, students $26.10 (service fees included)
Thursday, May 11, 2023
Join us for Opening Night! Following the show, we’ll gather ’round for a champagne toast!
Friday, May 12, 2023
FREE PERFORMANCES FOR STUDENTS SPONSORED BY H-E-B
Wednesday, May 17 & 24, 2023
To register for one of our free student performances, please call (210) 589-8450.
ASL NIGHT – Interpreters Provided
Sunday, May 21, 2023
ASL interpreters will be located near the stage for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing, seated in an area of the theater that gives the best sight lines to follow the interpretation and the action on stage. To access reserved seating in view of the interpreters for a signed performance, call our Box Office at (210) 589-8450.