Friday, March 5, 2010

Theater: Measure for Measure

While I was quite the Shakespeare aficionado in middle school, playing such grand roles as Tranio (The Taming of the Shrew), King Claudius (Hamlet), and Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, duh) at the ages of 10, 13, and 11 respectively (can an 11 year old girl at all understand Lady Macbeth? I do believe I did), my appreciation for the bard fell off as I grew older. In high school, I was assigned Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and King Lear (one each year except junior year, which focused solely on American literature, giving a much enjoyed respite from all things crusty and opaque). In college, as an English major, I had one required Shakespeare course. For this, I had to purchase a hardcover tome resembling the old family dictionary—with crackling sheets of nearly translucent 8.5x11 paper, printed in two columns of 10 point text single-spaced—which contained every last of the storied playwright's works. We didn't read them all, but bulldozed through a good number of them, getting particularly bogged down in the Richards (which I'm certain nobody enjoys).

In all that time, though, I'd never come across Measure for Measure, so knew nothing about it when I sat down at the Duke Theatre for a Broadway production directed by Arin Arbus. I thought perhaps it was a tragedy. Please do not shudder at my ignorance. Expectations bind us, so that we cannot fully experience art; the bard's first audiences didn't know what to expect when sitting down for Measure for Measure, so why should I?

This is actually one of his best plots, filled with intricate twists enabled by one of his favorite devices: the masked identity. In the briefest sketch, the Duke of Vienna, displeased by the state of morals in his city, announces a trip abroad, leaving his deputy Angelo in full control. Rather than departing, though, the Duke merely takes on the disguise of a friar, enabling him to mingle with his people in the streets. Quickly, perhaps because the power has gone to his head, or perhaps simply because he's over concerned by the letter of the law, Angleo has a citizen—Claudio—arrested, for he has gotten his fiance with child and they are not yet married (though it is only by a technicality). Further, he has sentenced Angelo to death by beheading the next morning. Claudio's sister Isabella, so morally upright and chaste that she is about to enter a nunnery when we first meet her, is overcome with grief, and approaches Angelo on her brother's behalf. The deputy, either enamored of her beauty or intrigued by her chastity, offers to free her brother on the condition that she spend a night with him. While she laments her brother's certain death (for what brother would ask his sister to sacrifice her chastity for his life?!), the Duke-friar appears and suggests a plan involving another masked identity: Mariana, a woman who was once engaged to Angelo, whom he abandoned when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, but who still loves him, should go to Angelo in the night under the guise of Isabella. Mariana agrees, but after their tryst in the middle of the dark night, though Angelo detects no foul play, he sends an order to the prison, demanding not only that Claudio be killed immediately, but that his head be delivered to him as proof. Luckily, the friar intervenes again, and a convenient death from illness in the prison that night provides an alternative head for Angelo's bloodlust. Soon, the Duke is ready to reveal himself, and in the final Act, all is restored to right. Angelo is unmasked as a cruel and unfit leader, and is made to marry Mariana. Claudio is revealed to be alive (for the Duke cruelly let Isabella think him dead in order for his plan to unfold more dramatically), and is at last able to marry his betrothed. Even the town player (for lack of a better term), who fathered a bastard by a whore nearly two years past, is forced to marry the woman and take ownership of the child. In the final moments, the Duke asks for Isabella's hand (in a comedy, no major character can go unmarried in the end), though she is quite surprised by this, and never agrees to marry him before the play is finished. That said, what 16th century gentlewoman can say no to a Duke and get away with it?

Arbus' staging is not quite as contemporized as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for the screen, of which I have fond high school memories, but neither is it a traditional, high Elizabethan affair of the Branagh school. The Duke and his deputies wear gray suits and ties, giving them a bit of a Law and Order air in the opening act. The whores wear what whores (literal and figurative) wear today: fishnets and fmbs and sequined mini-dresses. Isabella wears a narrow ankle-length skirt and high-collared white blouse with her hair in a bun, looking very much like a protestant school mistress in some undefined era—the amount of skin showing implies the Victorian (which suits her ethics), but the cuts are of the pre-war 1940s, and the fabrics clearly contemporary. And so, the stage is something of a Banana Republic-meets-Bebe affair, which doesn't jive all that well with the Elizabethan language. Costuming aside, Arbus' work is fine; the quality of the production comes organically from the quality of the script, bubbling up through the quality of the actors, who handle it very comfortably, playing easily with the language and timing themselves perfectly (for this is play that depends on banter and interjections).

The only real problem with pulling the text out of its historical context is that Isabella's character becomes far less sympathetic. In 16th century England, doubtless, it would be a cruel brother who would ask that his sister sacrifice her maidenhead to save his life (in fact, typically a brother would risk his life to save his sister's honor). But in 21st century New York, where strangers meet, exchange fluids, and part within a 24 hour span (or less!), never to see each other again or even recall the experience, Isabella seems awfully selfish; what is one sexual experience, even if it is one that one doesn't want to have, weighed against a family member's life? And so, Isabella, rather than echoing the wise and beautiful Portia (The Merchant of Venice, another legal drama that hinges on a woman's wisdom), appears naive, prudish, and spoiled.

But pulling away from Arbus' staging and observing Isabella's plight in the text alone, one can't help pitying the poor girl—she is the plaything of Angelo, cruelty incarnate, but equally of the "benevolent" Duke, whose ultimate designs on her aren't much different from his deputy's. Both are intrigued by her chastity, and if one seeks to possess it and the other to simply destroy it, neither acknowledges the girl's own true desire: to preserve it and enter a nunnery. A truly provocative production would double Shakespeare's own doubles, highlighting the lurking similarities between Angelo and the Duke.

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