Monday, September 2, 2019

Theater Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure,’ From The Acting Company

Long considered a “problem play,” Measure for Measure now looks like theater of the moment.  Though written four centuries ago, the central traumatic encounter created in this dramedy by William Shakespeare—between a male authority figure and a powerless female come to beg a favor from him—could have been almost word for word in the current #MeToo environment.

And so, The Acting Company came to interrupt it in a production that concluded its run a week ago in midtown Manhattan at the Duke on 42nd Street. I had been curious about seeing this play or the other in repertory with it, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. Then, following an episode of Shakespeare Uncovered devoted to this episode and hosted by Romola Garai, I felt irresistibly drawn to The Bard’s examination of power, sexuality and hypocrisy.

There are other intelligent, vibrant female characters in Shakespeare’s work, but few are as isolated and rocked on her heels as Isabella, a convent-trained young woman about to take her final vows as a nun. 

Nothing can lure her out of this sheltered environment but the shattering news that her beloved brother Claudio (played by Lorenzo Jackson) has been arrested on fornication charges after impregnating his girlfriend. This particular crime, unpunished for seven years, takes on new relevance when Duke Vincentio inexplicably takes a holiday for an unspecified period, leaving Venice in the hands of his subordinate Angelo, who is intent on punishing this crime to the maximum possible extent: death.

For all his squeaky-clean reputation, Angelo finds himself stirred by lust when Isabella—young, passionate, every bit his intellectual match—comes to plead for her brother’s life. Asserting his power, Angelo not only propositions Isabella—her yielding to his seduction, in exchange for sparing Claudio—but even attempts to assault her.

One set of lines in particular, starting with “Who would believe you?”, could have been uttered by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby—and, their accusers have charged, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Jeffrey Epstein. 

The contemporary parallels, practically screaming during this passage alone, are underscored in the climactic interrogation scene, when Isabella and Mariana (a long-ago fiancée of Angelo’s discarded by the puritan when her dowry goes down in a shipwreck along with her brother) undergo skeptical questioning by powerful males, with microphones and spotlights suggesting a recent well-known confirmation hearing.

While highlighting the play’s relevance, this production also tried to give it the kind of fast-moving pace that today’s headlines suggest, clocking in at 95 minutes and without an intermission. Those who like their Shakespeare pure will miss the assorted secondary johns and other riff-raff that the playwright included. The pace here was rapid, in the same way that a life can end, innocence can be stolen, or a reputation left in tatters.

This production benefited from a dazed but ultimately stalwart Isabella. Rebekah Brockman shone as the pregnant British teenager in a revival of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey presented by the late, lamented Pearl Theatre Co. (see my post from the time). 

Isabella has little of the sexual experience and spiky humor of Jo in that 1958 kitchen-sink drama, but she is equally intelligent and conflicted as she finds herself tossed to and fro in a male-dominated society. Two years ago, I expressed the hope that Brockman might be starting a luminous career, and this performance took her another step toward fulfilling that promise.

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