Measure for Measure
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
March 3, 2006
The Pearl Theatre brings us a solid production of one of Shakespeare’s less frequently produced plays, Measure for Measure. Director Beatrice Terry doesn’t give us any particular spin on the piece, the setting is the Pearl’s seasonal festival stage, and Frank Champa’s costumes are roughly “period.” Without any conceptual accoutrements, it is left to Shakespeare to shine, and he does so admirably.
The plot centers on Duke Vincentio, a leader who feels out of touch with his subjects. So, he decides to take a sabbatical from authority. He leaves his lieutenant Angelo in command, telling him he is going away, and then stays behind disguised as a friar. A number of the Duke’s decrees, what we would call today “Blue Laws,” have been left on the books, though no one has been paying any attention to them. Chief among these is a ban on out-of-wedlock fornication. This is highly problematic: despite the fact that the penalty for transgression is death, bordellos are flourishing, bawds are thriving, and maidens' bellies are growing.
Now, the Duke has not enforced this statute for over 16 years, but as soon as Angelo is in charge he decides the law is the law and sentences to death the latest perpetrator, one Claudio. However, Claudio is no mere lothario; he actually loves his love Juliet and intends to marry her. Claudio’s sister, a novitiate named Isabella, is persuaded to intercede with Angelo on her brother’s behalf. Angelo, a heretofore puritanical governmental cog, becomes infatuated with Isabella ( “What, do I love her, that I desire to hear her speak again and feast upon her eyes?”). In a remarkably rapid move of hypocritical gumption, Angelo declares he will free Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. This creates a moral dilemma for Isabella, who is not inclined to give up her virginity for her brother’s life. Luckily, the Duke is around to observe, pull strings, and finally set all aright after instigating a typical Elizabethan bed-switching scheme.
The Pearl’s production highlights the fact that this is a comedy, without interpolating jokes or shtick. The play really is a primer for playwrights on the use of dramatic irony to comic effect. Terry lets the Bard do the work and the inherent humor comes through. The chief comics are Dominic Cuskern as Lucio and Edward Seamon as Pompy. These Pearl stalwarts don’t try too hard, they don’t push for laughs—they simply are the characters, and to great effect. Cuskern in particular is marvelous in his portrayal—he is a gifted Shakespearean who clearly knows what he is doing and is great fun to watch.
The production seems a fairly uncut version, coming in at two hours and forty minutes, including intermission. For my taste, I wish Terry had found another fifteen minutes to cut, but the performance does move along and the plot moves and twists enough to keep us engaged. On the whole, I am not sure what Terry wanted us to come away with—I would not say she has put her own stamp on the play. But perhaps it is just enough to let old Bill Shakespeare do his thing. After all, an examination (and ultimate rejection) of the Biblical tenet of answering an eye for an eye and measure for measure is certainly relevant. Further, it is nice to be reminded that, like Angelo, we should not judge lest we be judged.