IF CVNC.org CALENDAR and REVIEWS are important to you:
If you use the CVNC Calendar to find a performance to attend
If you read a review of your favorite artist
If you quote from a CVNC review in a program or grant application or press release
Now is the time to SUPPORT CVNC.org
When I learned that Raleigh Little Theatre was staging Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare's more complicated and "dark" comedies, I had to scratch my head a little. For a comedy, this show seems unfit; it would make a far better drama than a comedy. There is corruption, prostitution, adultery, subterfuge, sexual assault, and sexual blackmail. None of that list falls very easily under "comedy."
It was therefore with interest that I attended opening night in the intimate Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre, a good choice for Shakespeare because it puts the action right in front of you, where you can hear the actors more clearly and not feel distanced from the show, like a proscenium might do. On one side of the stage we see the seat of power, the office of the Duke, and on the other side we see a bordello, or "house of baud," as the text tells us. We are in Vienna, and the problem, as the Duke sees it, is that he has allowed rampant corruption to go unpunished for too long. So, he plots to correct this problem by seeming to leave town and placing the running of the city into the hands of a cousin, Angelo (Wade Newhouse), who, by all accounts, should be well up to the task. To be sure, he leaves his trusted Elizabeth as second-in-command.*
But what the Duke (ably played by Nathan E. Bradshaw) is really up to is anyone's guess. He doesn't leave. Instead, he disguises himself and sticks around to view what happens. And it isn't pretty. Almost immediately upon assuming the mantle of power, Angelo arrests and jails one Claudio, a respected man about town. Claudio (Christopher McBennett) and his betrothed, Juliet (Rebecca Nelson) are expecting their first child. One realizes that for this to happen there must have been relations between the two, and, strictly speaking, that is very much against the law. But the two plan to live as one as soon as legal difficulties are dispensed with, and there seems to be no problem here. So, the arrest is both unexpected and overly severe as a punishment. But wait, there's more: Angelo, reading the law of the land literally, now condemns Claudio to death, under statute. This action horrifies almost everyone, including Elizabeth (Beth Somerville in an excellent portrayal).
There is, as in almost all of Shakespeare's plays, a lot more going on than this main action. Under Angelo's rule, all the "dens of iniquity" across Vienna are to be closed immediately. This proclamation causes widespread confusion, because it is under the Duke's rule that the houses have sprung up to begin with. Mistress Overdone (Donna Rossi Youngblood), who runs this particular house, is about to find herself without establishment, without home, and possibly a jail sentence handed to her. A couple of her "ladies," Pompey (Caroline Farmer) and Kit (Graylyn Schieman), also find themselves entangled in this snare and under the thumb of the Provost (Jim O'Brien), a seasoned military man who follows orders to the letter.
Claudio suddenly finds himself literally facing the axe. He entreats one of his friends, Lucio (Benjamin Tarlton), to go and find Claudio's sister, Isabella (in a fine portrayal by Rosemary Richards), who is soon to become a nun and may be able to speak humbly to Angelo to allow Claudio's life to be spared.
Friday's presentation of Measure for Measure had a lot going for it. Many of these actors gave fine portrayals, Richards as Isabella chief among them. The language was well-handled, with Shakespeare's rhetoric most supremely delivered by Bradshaw as the Duke. Bradshaw has mastered the art of delivering Shakespeare naturally, as if he were speaking to a friend. This went a long way in communicating to the audience exactly what the Duke was up to — which is vital, because as the show progresses, the Duke's actions become more and more extraordinary. We'll chat a bit more about that in a moment. But the crux of the matter at the moment, and the principal conflict of the play, is that, in order to spare Claudio's life, Angelo demands that Isabella sleep with him. That's the sexual blackmail. If she refuses, Claudio dies.
Rebecca C. Blum directs Measure for Measure, and she has succeeded fairly well, especially in introducing her characters so that we catch them going about their normal lives in Vienna: the ladies heckle and mistreat a rather inept constable named Elbow (Laura J. Parker), there is much coming and going in Mistress Overdone's part of town, and we see the business of running the government functions across town at the Duke's residence and other parts of City Hall, first among them the jail. Blum gets high marks in these aspects of staging. One oversight, however, is that it is never clear exactly in which time period this production is placed. The dress is no indication, because it ranges from the standard dress of Shakespeare's time, as represented by that of Mistress Overdone, to modern times, as represented by Pompey's miniskirt. The time, one must interpret, is nebulous. This leads to many glaring, unjustified anachronisms, most notably the telephone with intercom capability(!) sitting front and center on the Duke;s desk. There is no need for this kind of intrusion; all it did was distract us from the play, because it should not have been there.
Other presentations of this particular play, including those done by professional houses, have not done as well as this production in clearly presenting the story in a way the audience can follow and comprehend. For this ability alone, this cast, crew, and director all get very high marks.
The characters of the Duke and of Isabella were superbly handled here; Richard's Isabella was poised, lovely, and astute to balance her feelings of being upset and in over her head. Her interactions with the Bradshaw's Duke were superb. Both of these actors are very astute Shakespearean students, and they charmed and delighted us — at least, until the Duke again seems to act out of character. The last part of this play is, and always has been (at least to this student of the Bard), completely inexplicable. In his final action of the play, the Duke turns and suddenly proposes marriage to Isabella. Well, let it be known that Isabella is not the only one thrown into turmoil by his behavior. Blum ends things on that note, without a response from Isabella, who collapses on the floor in confusion. I have seen endings that were far less understandable than this, and I commend this cast on a stirring and comprehensible ending to an otherwise incomprehensible close. Shakespeare never fully explained his Duke, and the man has been a topic of heated discussion ever since. He is still inexplicable to most scholars of the Bard.
RLT's presentation of Measure for Measure has many merits. If you would like to see a clean and fairly understandable showing of this often-misunderstood work, I recommend this production to you. But, if you leave the theater scratching your head at the events of play, rest assured that you are not alone on that count.
Measure for Measure continues through Sunday, January 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
*Edited, updated 1/23/19