Measure for Measure 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

7/19/18 - 8/19/18

Baughman Theatre - Jackson MI
Village Theater of Cherry Hill - Canton, M
Duke & Angelo
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Overdone & Pompey copy
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Isabella & Duke
Isabella
Isabella & Angelo
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Angelo - Elbow MEASURE
Abhorson
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This ‘Measure for Measure’ both completely classic and ripped from the headlines

Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

JACKSON,Mich.–What happens when justice isn’t tempered with mercy? When the law is used to bludgeon rather than create a better society? When a leader doesn’t know how to lead?

Those are just a few of the questions raised in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, currently being performed by the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. It is a play that feels incredibly current with themes anyone familiar with the #metoo movement will recognize. When a male power figure tells a woman her word will never be believed over his, the audience shares a collective grimace.

But Director Janice L. Blixt isn’t just trying to make hay off the day’s headlines. Her Measure for Measure is a thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of one of the Bard’s problem plays. She doesn’t hesitate to make edits not only for ease of production and timing but also for thematic purposes. She guides her actors in digging in to the play’s subtext and giving each of their characters something specific to communicate. There’s a lot to explore and to chew on in this political comedy.

 

It starts with the Duke, Vincentio, played by Ian Geers. He’s suddenly decided to take a break from ruling and leave his power in the hands of Angelo, his second in command, a well-reputed man who has served him well. Angelo, played by Robert McLean, is assisted by Vincentio’s uncle Escalus, played by Zach Fischer. The Duke disguises himself and goes underground to learn what his people think about his ruling.

Angelo immediately begins to enforce laws that had long since been ignored, you know, those pesky rules that no one has bothered to remove from the books. His first victim is Claudio (Laurence Stepney) who has gotten his betrothed pregnant. Since they are willing lovers, the sentence would typically be marriage. Instead, Angelo sentences Claudio to beheading.

Claudio’s friends call upon his sister Isabella (Diana Coates) to appeal to Angelo for mercy. As she is a novitiate about to become a nun, her honor is considered beyond reproach.

From there the plot, as it always does in Shakespeare’s comedies, thickens and twists and turns with villainy and disguises and mistaken identities. And along the way, he challenges us with themes of hypocrisy, corruption, purity, nobleness, leadership, and honesty.

The character work in this show is strongly evident. Every actor makes some sort of physical choice that speaks to the character’s personality and choices and is carried out throughout the show. Each is interesting and worth noting.

Geers gives us a gentle Duke, one awkward and uncertain in his ruling. Early in the show he demonstrates his hesitation even in shaking hands, which he does so reluctantly, gingerly. It is only when Vincentio takes on a disguise that he finds himself able to grow, to learn about the people and place he rules. Geers gives him an innocence and gentleness that makes him sympathetic and adds authenticity to the final scene—he’s shown us how the Duke has grown from who he was in the beginning to who he is at the end.

There are certain women Shakespeare has created that are just a joy to see on stage—they are powerful, eloquent, strong women who manage to rise above the limitations that society puts on them. Isabella is one such character and Coates does a beautiful job with her. Coates discourses with passion, imbuing Isabella with a certainty of her cause and a confidence in her manner. She gives her the right amount of fear, outrage and honorable mercy. She’s a worthy opponent to Angelo, even though he has all the corporal power and she has none.

Speaking of Angelo, Hamlet might have been talking about McLean’s portrayal of Angelo when he said ”one may smile and smile and be a villain.” For his betters, he always has a smile. McLean stiffens his spine for the seemingly upright Angelo, always appearing outwardly perfect until the temptation of passion touches him, and even then, he unbends only when no one else can see. While his lieutenants try to dissuade him from his hard judgments, they are swayed by his arguments, that he acts from honor and care for the state. McLean ensures that Angelo always appears “angel on the outward side,” as the Duke later describes him.

It is what makes his seduction of Isabella and his treatment of Claudio so powerfully outrageous. It is why it screams of generations of women who have fallen prey to men too respectable for anyone to believe that they would be guilty of sexual misconduct. When Angelo asks, “Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” we hear the echoes of every defense lawyer who ever claimed the fault was with how the victim dressed or what she drank or the time of night she walked outside.

Together McLean and Coates make this work without ever forcing the script into something Shakespeare didn’t intend for it to say. It is, sadly, as common an issue 400 years ago as it is today.

Fischer’s Escalus is highly sympathetic and wise. One wonders why the Duke didn’t leave him in charge as he is consistently fair in his rulings and seems to most represent the Duke and his philosophy. Fischer is fatherly without being paternal, honest without being arrogant, and is constantly focused on everything going on around him.

Brandon St. Clair Saunders has some of the starring roles this season, starting with being featured on the program cover and then as Ariel in “The Tempest.” In this play, he is Lucio, “a fantastic,” friend to Claudio and a roustabout. He struts like a peacock and in this often-serious comedy filled with drama, provides some of the most purely funny moments. His interactions with the disguised Duke build and build and make the final scene one of high comedy.

Joining Saunders as a clown is Alan Ball who plays the Dogberry-like Elbow, a constable who can’t get any of his words right or manage to make charges stick against any of the people he arrests. Ball does some great schtick with handcuffs, with each scene getting more and more outlandish.

Tobin Hissong is the Provost who is constantly present to carry out the Duke and Angelo’s orders. He’s got the simple honesty of Elbow, but is far more literate and competent. Hissong helps give an everyman reaction to the seemingly just orders of Angelo. He also has an everyman’s affront at criminal behavior, especially the serious crimes, as he entertainingly relates with an iteration of “and he’s a murderer!”

The cast is large and every performance is noteworthy, each actor contributing to this complex tale in a way that carries out Blixt’s very clear vision.

Especially satisfying is how Blixt handles the ending between Isabella and the Duke, something that is somewhat of a problem in the original story, but she edits ever so slightly to make it true to each of their characters and to modern sensibilities without compromising Shakespeare’s intent in the least.

Costume Designer Susan High helps Blixt set the play in Victorian England, a palette of blacks, whites, and greys underlining the rigidity and hypocrisy of how Angelo applies the law. She also provided the bawdies with appropriately layered costumes that they could pull on and off over their shoes while still on stage.

Joe Schermoly built a simple set upon which Jeremy Hopgood could cast his projections that take the audience from place to place in the town and easily from interior to exterior.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival always commits to the highest quality of productions, and “Measure for Measure” stands tall amongst their history of shows. It’s an accessible show that is current in theme, easy to understand, and performed by classical actors at the top of their craft. There are few Shakespeare plays more timely than this one, and it is being performed in both Jackson and Canton, making it easier than ever to put on your playlist.