Measure for Measure
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Independent Shakespeare Company
Through July 22
To produce Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is to wrestle with morality. Like so many of the Bard’s other works, Measure for Measure has a sense of timelessness to it — characters in the play were having the same arguments 400 years ago that we’re having today.
Though Measure for Measure is ostensibly about justice and whether rulers should follow the letter of the law, Independent Shakespeare Company’s production, now playing in Griffith Park, shines an unflinching light on the sexual politics at the crux of the play. Indeed, the biggest moral quandary here isn’t whether fornication is a sin that should be punished by death, but instead whether a rapist can (or should) be forgiven.
The play’s plot centers on Isabella (Kalean Ung), a young woman in Vienna who is pure of heart and body. Her brother Claudio (Evan Lewis Smith) has been arrested for engaging in premarital sexual relations with his fiancée and, under the puritanical reign of temporary despot Angelo (William Elsman), has been sentenced to death. Isabella is determined to save her brother’s life, and enlists the help of Friar Lodovico (David Melville) who is actually the Duke of Vienna in disguise.
Angelo is beguiled by Isabella’s beauty, and offers her a compromise: if she sleeps with him, he’ll pardon Claudio, saving his life. The very idea is abhorrent to Isabella, and though she loves her brother dearly, she refuses to sleep with Angelo. The Duke comes up with the perfect solution to her problem: she’ll tell Angelo she’ll sleep with him, but he’ll actually be sleeping with his ex-fiancée, Mariana (April Fritz), unbeknownst to him.
Though Shakespeare’s plays are typically categorized as comedies, tragedies or histories, Measure for Measure is part of a fourth genre, known as problem plays (other examples are All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida), which have both comedic and tragic elements. Under Melissa Chalsma’s direction, the tone varies wildly; there are big, bawdy moments with comic relief characters Mistress Overdone (Xavi Moreno) and Bum (Lorenzo González), and other more dramatic ones that portray Isabella’s utter despair. The acting, as a whole, is overwrought (a common pitfall when performing in a large, outdoor venue), though Elsman offers shades of subtlety in his performance as Angelo.
Still, Angelo is the most troubling character. Though he doesn’t actually rape Isabella — since he sleeps with his (consenting) fiancée instead — his intentions are clearly nefarious. Isabella repeatedly makes it clear that she does not wish to sleep with him, and threatens to expose the true nature of his character. Angelo, in a moment of pure villainy, replies, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” This sentiment has not changed a whit in the intervening 400 years — just look at the dialogue around any recent major case involving sexual assault, from allegations against Bill Cosby and Johnny Depp to the recent suicide of a University of Alabama student who had accused a prominent member of the local community of raping her.
By the time the play’s finale rolls around, the question of justice has been raised a few times. The consensus the characters arrive at is that premarital sex shouldn’t be punishable by death, and everything appears well and good. But the Duke, having finally shed his disguise, goes a step further. He’s prepared to sentence Angelo to death for his intended, if not actual, crimes against Isabella. The Duke puts Angelo’s fate in Isabella’s hands and, in the play’s prickliest moment, asks if she’s willing to forgive him. What is the proper punishment for a man who thought he was raping an innocent, unwilling woman? Isabella reasons that since his actions were pure, though his intentions weren’t, Angelo should be acquitted and allowed to live. It’s an overly simple answer to a knotty question, and it leaves a bad taste that can’t be rinsed away, no matter how many peppy Beyonce songs Chalsma plays during the curtain call.
The Old Zoo in Griffith Park, Wed.- Sun., 7 p.m.; through July 22; iscla.org. Running time: 3 hours with a 20-minute intermission.