Measure for Measure, dating to 1602 or 1603, is an infrequently performed Shakespeare comedy, probably because it has less easy appeal than its more famous predecessors. The MSU Theater Department production, continuing through November 18 at Wonders Hall, shows why, if well done, this play deserves a stronger place in the repertoire.
Christina Traister's direction is what I would call a post-modern-traditionalist take on this "problem play." The story revolves around draconian, if unenforced, laws against pre-marital sex, a topic that has had little relevance in college communities for a couple of generations, if not more, although it is not at all irrelevant from a global perspective. I generally find attempts to make Shakespeare, or other "dated" works, relevant by updating the setting, usually to a time and place also not here-and-now, distracting, but purist, as we imagine performed at The Globe, productions can get tiresome. Traister mostly stays true to period costumes and setting, but throws in enough contemporary allusions to allow the audience to be aware it is watching in 2012, while engaging fully with the darkness that cannot be done tongue-in-cheek.
The post-modernism (along with using "tablets" for paperwork and a few other bits) is embodied in the "bawd," Pompey, wonderfully played as a "trouser-role" by Zachera Wollenberg, who had a similar, albeit unquestionably female role, to much applause, in last Summer Circle's Adrift in Macao. Not in period costume, complete with iPod and ear bugs, but with a period lock-picker, the acerbic, up-yours-authority, her Pompey is both totally now and totally Shakespeare, including providing half-time entertainment. This gives the audience a way to relate, while the other comic characters, the constable, Elbow (Chris Coy), and Pompey's bawdy-house employer, Mistress Overdone (Mary Dilworth), as well as the authority figures whom she baits, stay in period. It is a remarkably effective way of letting us have contemporary fun -- Ms. Wollenberg has the talent to be a first-rate professional comedic actress -- without distracting from the serious drama, best left in its Vienna Dukedom.
Isabella, a novice in a nunnery, is victim of the dark side, forced to choose between saving her brother, Claudio (Adam Sutherland), condemned to death for impregnating his would-be bride, Juliette, (they lacked the money to pay for the marriage license) and her chastity. Without a fine Shakespearean actress as Isabella, who can hold the dramatic candle to Pompey's bawd and deliver most of the play's best speeches, Measure to Measure would fail. It is a real tribute to Natalie Manz, a junior, and to the theater department, that we have college student who can play this role effectively (Meryl Streep played it at the New York Shakespeare Festival, after receiving her MA from Yale Drama School).
Once again, the entire cast was strong. The Duke, much of the time disguised as a meddlesome friar, was solidly played by Ian Page, without taking over at the expense of the more important, if less present, comic and dramatic characters (I can't imagine Kevin Kline in the role at the New York Shakespeare festival). Casey Hunsberger was appropriately Kevin Kline-like as Lucio, the quipping, libertine courtier, who takes too many liberties both with the ladies and with his friend, the disguised Duke.
Isabella's dramatic counterpoint should be Angelo, appointed to rule Vienna in the Duke's supposed absence. But he just isn't. Angelo is a sincere, overzealous, strict constructionist of a strict morality, turned would-be rapist by Isabella's purity and piety. He is neither the comic, self-righteous, Malvolio, tricked into believing his mistress loves him, nor the sinister hypocrites of Othello and King Lear. Shakespeare simply failed to make his transformation believable -- there is no "objective correlative," as T.S. Eliot called it when deeming Hamlet a failure, no good reason for Angelo to turn from sanctimonious to lustful and treacherous. It is done all too quickly, and the play's most famous line, uttered by the functionary, Escalus (Zev Steinberg), "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall," does not actually describe the plot. This is Shakespeare's fault, not that of Mack Hamilton, who does a good, college-level, job with the role. Again, the director, with her post-modern-traditional approach, does the right thing: she lets Angelo be played strongly in each of his moments without feeling the need to reconcile his inconsistencies -- I expect when Gielgud (who introduced me to live Shakespeare as Benedick in a 1960 outdoor Boston performance) or Charles Laughton played the part, they tried to equal Isabella, to her detriment and theirs.
Measure for Measure is also a "problem" comedy, because it does not end with happy marriages: one happy, two forced, and another ambiguous or uncertain. Even the happy marriage, between Claudio and the pregnant Marianna (Sara Anne Ostrowski), generates no gladness, because we never see them together until the end. I was happy that when Lucio is forced to marry a whore he wronged, the director did not choose to make it the trousered Ms. Wollenberg, since whatever his or her sex, Pompey should remain bawdy in perpetuity. And, if Isabella does marry the Duke, who has manipulated and is beneath her, it is better it happen after the audience departs, as Ms. Traister well understands.