Measure for Measure is a problem play. It has been named so because of the difficulty in classifying it as either a comedy or a tragedy, but there are plenty of problems within the play—most famously the ending, which is disconcerting at best. One reason that UT’s production is successful is that it embraces the problems of the play rather than trying to hide them. It aims to highlight the questionable and unsatisfying events and characters and force the audience to think about their implications.
The play begins with Vincentio, the duke of Vienna, played by first-year Dan Wiedenhaupt, announcing that he is leaving the country and leaving power in the hands of the stone-hearted judge, Angelo, played by second-year Morgan Maher. Sexual deviancy has been running a little too rampant in the city, so when the nobleman Claudio (second-year Griffin Sharps) gets his fiancée Juliet (second-year Anna Christine) pregnant before they are married, Angelo decides to make an example of him and has him sentenced to death. Claudio’s friend Lucio (third-year Daniel Sefik) convinces Claudio’s sister, Isabella (first-year Alli Urbanik), to depart from the convent she is about to enter and go plead for her brother’s life.
So far, nothing is too troublesome, but this is just the beginning. It is soon clear that Angelo lusts for Isabella, and he agrees to set her brother free only on the condition that she sleep with him. Troubled by the base and hypocritical nature of this proposal, to say the least, she goes to ask her brother about it, sure he will choose to end his own life rather than cause her to live in mortal shame. His answer predictably reveals different priorities. Never fear, though. The duke, who has not really left at all but has disguised himself as a friar coming to visit the prisoners, hatches a scheme to save Isabella’s honor and her brother’s life at once. Why he doesn’t just use his power as duke instead of sneaking around impersonating a holy man is a question that pales in comparison to those raised at the end of the play, when all of the problems with relationships of power and love within the play are not so much resolved as closed in remarkably unsatisfying ways.
“It’s not one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays—there are bizarre and illogical plot devices and the heroes make decisions that are difficult to understand and accept,” explained fourth-year director Deborah Munro. “These are the questions that drew meinto the play—trying to understand the seeming inconsistencies and, in the process, coming to love and respect each of the characters. Yes, they are flawed, but at the same time, very human and struggling, as we all struggle to do good.”
Don’t worry, though; the play is not all struggling. Besides making the problems of the show clear and open to consideration, this production succeeds in putting on a smooth and clear performance of Shakespeare. Acting in a Shakespearian production is a double challenge because not only are the characters often complicated and intense but everything must be done extremely clearly so that the audience doesn’t get lost in the language. The actors in this production make it easy to get caught up in the drama of the play and almost forget about the intellectual challenges it poses.
One thing that adds to the pure enjoyment of the play is the straightforward, base comedy that is mixed in with all of the high drama. Most of the comic characters are associated with a brothel run by Mistress Overdone (Emily Jusino, a graduate student in the Classics department), so there is plenty of Shakespeare’s unabashedly filthy humor. There is also a constable (also played by Christine) who spews forth an abundance of malapropisms in his quest against the bauds and prostitutes, in particular the especially cheeky Pompey, played with comic excellence by fourth-year Martyna Majok. Perhaps the funniest comic character is Lucio, who persistently slanders the duke to the friar, and then later the friar to the duke, not realizing that they are the same person.
All of the action, serious and comic takes place on a simple, but haunting and effective set. The play is in the round, and the gray stones of the set extend to the feet of the audience, drawing the viewers into the stark, intimate space that serves as prison, church, and palace. The use of the same space for the plays holy and lowly interactions appropriately highlights one ot th plays main concerns, which is the meeting and combination of the base and the noble both between and within individuals. Munro also symbolized this tension cleverly by having actors that play multiple roles portray characters that are considered both “good” and “bad.”
Measure for Measure is full of daunting questions and monumental themes, like the relationships between private life and public responsibility, justice and mercy, and love and lust, but it is mostly a good chance to see Shakespeare’s wit and genius realized in an excellent production. As Munro said, “Above all, I want the audience to enjoy.”