By Bob Shuman
In his staging of Measure for Measure, from Theatre for a New Audience, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center until July 16, Simon Godwin takes his time in getting to the Bard. His production opens the problem play (Shakespeare places us in a decadent Vienna), written circa 1603, with a brothel tour, one curated seriously, as if it’s part of a downtown gallery exhibit (the scenic and costume design is by Paul Wills; the light designer is Matthew Richards). The director comes at us from a different direction, later, too, by placing the audience in a country-western bar, where an up-and-coming Linda Ronstadt might be singing. (Jane Shaw composed the music and designed the sound; the musicians are Drew Bastian, Robert Cowie, and Osei Essed.) Whether he is laughing behind our backs or not, trying to prick the bourgeoisie, by letting subscribers peruse, among others, dildos, ben wa balls, S&M masks, handcuffs, and even a Donald Trump sex toy, Godwin is not merely a smooth, hip director.
He also allows the audience to see the play’s confrontations with serious intellectual intent, as he explores Shakespeare’s scene work, as well as his language and storytelling—asking us to find our way into them, unrushed, almost in the way he might have asked himself and his actors to analyze and interpret during rehearsals. Unpretentiously, they have found original, defensible characterizations, which may seem completely new. Notable among them is the work of Thomas J. Ryan, who shows Angelo to be a boring, awkward bureaucrat (he may even be banal and evil)–yet his likes are found in thousands of offices every day—here, the character compulsively grabs for the Purell. Jonathan Cake is not the partying jock he played as the lead in Antony and Cleopatra at the Public in 2014—now he is paler, a wild aristo before decline, hiding behind glasses that are too big. Perhaps his character will remind of Hal in Henry IV, Part 2–a work that is believed to be written earlier than this one, in 1596. More recently, Prince Harry has stated, relevant to this discussion, that no one in his family really wants to be King, “but we will carry out our duties at the right time.” That, of course, is the story of the aforementioned Henry play and Measure for Measure—Cake does play his Duke as a modern British royal, one who is aware of what all his training and position mean (down to where and how to place his feet and hold his hands at the back); he also knows how to find the mellifluous meter of the Bard. Cara Ricketts makes an impressive Isabella because she concentrates on the character’s essence and heart (some consider the character cruel, but does anyone think a nun, the bride of Christ, would enter into the bargain Angelo is asking her to be part of?).
By taking his time with Shakespeare, walking with him and letting him take his own time, Godwin creates new interest in the play, even if he also shows the Bard’s warts and beauty marks. For example:
- Information can be repeated (Claudio’s execution)
- One wonders why there is so much concern with this one criminal and crime, when there must be other, more dangerous activities happening in this depraved city
- The Duke takes time to act on a problem that he is sympathetic to. Like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, he could set everything right immediately, but he waits
- Isabella seems to be allowed to stay away from her convent and keep her own hours, as if there are no internal rules for her order
- There’s the obvious sexism of the bed trick
- Among other issues.
Godwin must also deal with the problem of anachronism—Mariana (Merritt Janson) is introduced as a modern, independent woman, but, by the end of the play, she contorts into a submissive wife, as does Kate in The Taming of the Shrew or even Katharine Hepburn in many of her star vehicles. Whatever he can’t do to help Measure for Measure, however, Godwin should be commended for creating a true color-blind production. Actors of different races may be used to show how progressive a company is regarding diversity, often in order to make a political point. Although a more practical reason may be that actors of different backgrounds can help the audience keep characters straight, Godwin isn’t holding up casting choices as a shield or to telegraph his political correctness.
Perhaps one of the larger problems the director encountered with Measure for Measure, is the fact that the play insists that every character is obstructed and must be hyper-alive to choices that cannot be postponed. There is no normal in the drama (perhaps this is what the Duke is trying to figure out)—and there is no one who can be identified as normal either (to put the dilemma in terms of Hamlet, there is no Horatio in this play). What was once considered status quo is no longer, as the Austrian laws have changed for the whole citizenry. Meeting only those living on the edge, the audience may decide the work oddly reflects the current state of the U.S. and the West, whether they are flag-waving or not (and those who see this Measure for Measure will be able to actually do this if they want). The play is such a perennial for simplified, unnuanced summer stages that viewers may have become inured to its complexities, dissonances, and differences: Measure for Measure, for example, is Shakespeare where a male spends most of the play in disguise. Godwin, treats the work as unusual, intellectual, suitable only for an unusual production, underplayed and stimulating, sexual or not.
© 2017 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Visit Theatre for a New Audience: http://www.tfana.org/?gclid=CJnqv7zu8NQCFc1XDQodOtEDpQ
Press: Blake Zidell at Blake Zidell & Associates, Rachael Shearer.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
OBERON K.A. ADJEPONG (Provost)
JONATHAN CAKE (Duke Vincentio)
KENNETH DE ABREW (Froth/Abhorson/Friar Peter)
ZACHARY FINE (Friar Thomas/Elbow/Barnardine, Gentleman).
LELAND FOWLER (Claudio)
MERRITT JANSON (Mariana)
JANUARY LAVOY (Mistress Overdone/Escala/Francisca)
CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL MCFARLAND (Pompey)
SAM MORALES (Juliet)
CARA RICKETTS (Isabella)
THOMAS JAY RYAN (Angelo)
HAYNES THIGPEN (Lucio)
DREW BASTIAN (Musician)
ROBERT COWIE (Music Director/Musician)
OSEI ESSED (Musician)
SIMON GODWIN (Director)
BRIAN BROOKS (Choreographer)
PAUL WILLS (Scenic & Costume Designer)
MATTHEW RICHARDS (Lighting Designer)
JANE SHAW (Composer & Sound Designer)
ALISON BOMBER (Voice & Text Coach)
ERIC REYNOLDS (Properties Supervision)
JONATHAN KALB (Production Dramaturg)
MEGAN SCHWARZ DICKERT (Production Stage Manager)