University of Rhode Island’s Theatre Department kicks off the second half of its 2017-18 season with an edgy and energetic production of William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” a genre-busting play in which darkly poetic passages on death, justice and morality are constantly disrupted by clever and often raunchy comic moments. Under the direction of Rachel Walshe, the production draws sharp thematic and aesthetic inspiration from American culture at a dramatic inflection point in the early 1970s. URI’s show makes a strong first impression, opening with a sex club dance party set to T. Rex’s 1973 glam rock anthem “20th Century Boy,” evoking all of the danger, deviance and sexual rebellion of the era. This seemingly provocative take is entirely fitting, since Shakespeare’s play is acutely concerned with – and surprisingly frank about – the intersection of sexuality and political power.
“Measure for Measure” is set in a decadent city – medieval Vienna under Catholic rule – where prostitution and sexual debauchery are running rampant. The ruler, Duke Vincentio, is unwilling to take on the brothels and leaves the city, placing a deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo instates harsh laws governing promiscuity, and a young man, Claudio, finds himself under sentence of death due to the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of his betrothed, Juliet. Claudio’s sister Isabella, about to enter the convent, returns to Vienna to appeal directly to Angelo. Angelo agrees to spare Claudio’s life but demands sex from her in exchange. In the meantime, the Duke has returned to the city disguised as a Friar and concocts an elaborate plan to save Claudio’s life and Isabella’s chastity.
To be clear, URI’s take on Shakespeare’s dark and cynical “problem play” is not merely provocative for its own sake. Walshe’s adaptation is thoughtfully executed and loyal both to Shakepeare’s language, as well as to the moral and social dilemmas he wishes to explore. Costume design by Abigail Dufresne and Jennifer Stavrakas provides thematic emphasis, drawing sharp contrasts between the rigid social order of the church and ruling class and the city’s dark and hedonistic underbelly. This is expressed as much in Angelo’s tightly buttoned shirt and the Duke’s crisp pantsuit as it is in the fetish fashion of the pimps and prostitutes, replete with leather, lace and a few carefully placed sex toys. The early 1970s saw dramatic changes in the relationship between government and the individual, with social and legal norms regarding homosexuality, divorce, abortion, contraception and pornography reaching both social and political boiling points, and fears of new sexually transmitted diseases on the horizon. Design elements are insightful, rather than gimmicky, calling attention to themselves at appropriate moments, but allowing Shakespeare’s central dilemma to take center stage.
Standing at the heart of the play is the power dynamic between one of Shakespeare’s most dynamic female characters, Isabella, and one of his most fascinating villains, Angelo. Much of the play is constructed around thrilling argumentation between two characters who have so much at stake. The two actors, Emily MacLean and Daniel F. Greene, are well matched for this rhetorical dueling. Greene imbues his character with an earnestness that complicates a one-dimensional reading of Angelo’s evil and tyranny. Far from a self-righteous nun, MacLean’s Isabella is as resolute as she is fiery and passionate. MacLean gives such forceful and compelling expression to Isabella’s brilliant speeches on mercy, power and justice that when Greene’s Angelo hesitates for a moment, one can imagine that he has changed his mind.
The superb back-and-forth builds and reaches a boiling point when Angelo makes his violent sexual advance toward Isabella, a scene that reverberates through the rest of the play. “Who will believe thee, Isabella?” taunts Angelo, “say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.” Isabella’s asking herself, “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?,” is just one of many moments when the show resonates so intensely to the contemporary audience. To be sure, URI’s production lays bare not only the personal abuse of political power, but also the consequences of reckless extension of government into people’s bedrooms and onto their bodies.
While the central moral question and looming threat of violence seem ripped right out of some of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies, “Measure for Measure” is structured around comic conventions of the time. The production is absolutely littered with all manner of comic relief, including disguise and mistaken identity, bawdy puns and humor, as well as the theme of courtship and, of course, marriage. URI’s production executes these elements very well. Renee Surprenant’s brilliant thrust platform set design not only surrounds the actors on three sides with the audience, but frequently places the comic action on the floor, in and among the spectators. With actors addressing audience members and sitting among them, the viewer is drawn in and takes a stake in the action of the play.
John Thomas Cunha is an ostentatious delight, turning in a crowd-pleasing performance in the role of Lucio, a flip and flamboyant joker who is equally well known both at court and in the brothels. Cuhna gets a big laugh at the beginning of the show when he is caught in the middle of a sex act, and even bigger laughs when he repeatedly interrupts the Duke’s lengthy speech with his ribald witticisms at the end of the play. J. Edward Clarke as the pimp Pompey and Catia Ramos as the brothel madam Mistress Overdone also turn in great comic performances.
The play’s comic and tragic elements are tied together through the nimble and masterful performance of Katharine Templeton in the role of Duke Vincentio. While the gender-blind casting in this and other roles offers many insights, Templeton herself proves fluent in Shakespeare’s prose and poetry, with delightfully unpredictable pacing and often breathless delivery bouncing between heartfelt sincerity and poker-faced comic timing. Templeton‘s Duke gives a tour-de-force performance as the production’s puppet master, remaining in tight control of the action while delivering close to a third of the play’s words. The show is worth it for the final scene, an extended civic spectacle staged by the Duke where things appear to be headed in a tragic direction, only to arrive at a delightfully confounding happy ending.
Above all, URI’s production flourishes on the cast’s commanding interaction with Shakespeare’s language. What could be a quite wordy play cluttered with comic non sequiturs is brisk (just over two hours), nearly seamless and equal parts dark and funny. URI’s production is boldly theatrical, stuffed with audacious bits of comedy while confronting universal themes of justice, mercy, honesty, virtue, sex and death. The gestures to the 1970s enhance the characters and their motivations in a way that still resonates as deeply today, in the 21st Century, as when the play was first performed.