BWW Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE at Ensemble Theatre Company
Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, currently on stage at the New Vic Theater, has been noted as a "problematic" play through the years due to a murky tone that's neither overtly comedic nor tragic. Director Jonathan Fox's production of this story of corruption and temptation is brazenly menacing, with a stylized Gotham City vibe that reads more like a cautionary parable than an exercise in realism. It's a complicated tale that, especially in a particularly sensitive culture, parades examples of that most glorious and horrific tradition of powerful men exploiting, humiliating, and silencing women.
The Duke (AK Murtadha) leaves his kingdom in the rule of Angelo (Richard Baird), a judge known for his moral austerity, an asceticism so severe it verges on ritualistic kink. On day one of Angelo's temporary stewardship, a local woman is found to be pregnant out of wedlock. She and her baby-daddy, Claudio (Trevor Peterson), are thrown into prison for fornication, now a punishable offence. When Claudio's sister, nun Isabella (Lily Gibson) hears the news, she begs Angelo for her brother's life. The deal she's offered is less than savory: her virginity in exchange for her brother's pardon. When Isabella threatens to bring Angelo's lascivious behavior to the public, he intimidates her into submission and sends her, hopeless, into the night to weigh her brother's life against her own rape.
The stakes are extreme--but not outside the realm of possibilities, as has been made shamefully obvious in recent headlines. Fox has created a world in which men are cruel and frightening--a representation of the apprehension that motivates human behavior, especially in modern culture. Even the Duke, who comes in to save the day, seems sinister. He skulks around the prison dressed as a monk, perpetuating the emotional chaos to a fever pitch before removing his hood to end the escalation and take a more powerful hold over his subjects. In the end, the Duke disappears into silhouette and haze after asking for (demanding?) Isabella's hand in marriage. Her stunned silence and the freeze-frame response of the rest of the cast has a disturbing horror-flick feel, and one can imagine the devious laughter of a maniacal villain as the lights go out.
Performances are strong, though there's a certain emotional distance between audience and narrative, some of which can be attributed to the Shakespearian language barrier, some of which can be attributed to the graphic-novel-esque hyperbole of the production's style. The stage space goes a long way to support this black-mirror universe: walls and a ceiling grate maneuver to create a tighter prison for characters in distress, and screens on the upstage wall present the discomfort of a surveillance state (though the content they show is inconsistently effective). Ultimately, the relevance of Measure for Measure is clear, and its presentation as a parable of humanity's gross desires holds up, even after four centuries.
Runs: October 5 at 8:00pm - Sunday, October 20, 2019
Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8:00pm
Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm
For tickets; www.etcsb.org