Measure for Measure

Jane Austen meets Shakespeare:  Morality Tale told through comedy .

Desdemona Chiang, has directed perhaps the best show Seattle Shakespeare Company has ever produced: Measure for Measure, which opened on Friday January 10th at the Center Theater at Seattle Center.   Defined as a comedy because it has an almost fairy tale-like happy ending, it is also a serious morality tale, dealing with many Christian and universal themes such as mercy, atonement, chastity, the consequences of lust or what in previous generations was called “sin”, the irony of hypocrisy and the perniciousness of rigidly enforced justice.

Unlike many renditions of Measure for Measure, Ms. Chiang was not intimidated by its serious themes; as a director she milked the script for every ounce of humor, in addition to adding a number of coherent creative touches to make the script come alive.  Like a Jane Austen novel, the script was punctuated with incredible wit, irony as well as the unmasking of hypocrisy; however, unlike Ms. Austen, the sexual innuendos and double entendres were more explicit but just as witty.

To make his serious point that certain individuals should not be endowed with authority and that a too rigid application of rules is destructive,  Shakespeare could have ended the play tragically but like a Jane Austen novel, it all ended in four marriages-some of which were voluntary and some involuntary.

Set in Vienna, with all the vices and corruption of a large city, Ms. Chiang chose to set this production more or less in modern times.   Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, a modern day Teflon man, decides to leave town for a while, in order to have his deputy Angelo, a rigid puritanical type, clean up the debauchery of the city and close down the brothels.  His reasoning is not just that he wants to stop people having fun; he has noticed that there are a few too many fatherless children, forcing mothers into the world’s oldest profession.

Angelo does not “season justice with mercy” and in a very stupid act, condemns Claudio to death for impregnating his irregularly married “wife” Juliet.  The couple had ceremoniously entered into a marriage contract with their friends and family present but had neglected to have a religious ceremony.  The rigid Angelo does not take these mitigating circumstances into consideration, nor the burden on the charitable institutions of having to support another fatherless child and her mother.  Instead of following the custom of the time, which was to get the couple legally married right away, Angelo comdemns Claudio, the expectant father, to death.

In an attempt to commute Claudio’s sentence his sister Isabelle, a novice nun, pleads with Angelo, who offers her a Faustian bargain.  Angelo will pardon Claudio, if Isabella will offer up her virginity to Angelo.  Caught in a moral dilemma Isabelle defends her virtue at the cost of her brother’s life.  Meanwhile, the Duke has been prowling around Vienna disguised as a blind padre,  finding out what his people think of him, how Angelo is carrying out his orders, and hearing various confessions: including Isabelle’s.

The Duke, with Isabelle’s help, hatches an intricate plot to entrap Angelo with his former fiancée to catch him in his sexual hypocrisy, save Claudio’s life, as well as get husbands for the fatherless children.  By upholding her own values over practicality, Isabelle-like Elizabeth Bennett,-wins the affection of the richest, most powerful man in town. (who is, incidentally, easy on the eyes)

The  sound by Evan Mosher as well as the lighting by Andrew D. Smith, especially in the superb opening scene of raunchy strippers doing a pole dance, immediately created an atmosphere of distasteful sinister debauchery.  Throughout the production, the sound and the light continued to deliver the proper mood.

The costumes by Christine D. Tschirgi and K.D. Schill, were to die for.  Each costume completely complimented the characters.  Stand-outs were the costumes for Pompey-a rather fey “tapster” that is to say pimp, and Lucio a low-lifer pal of Claudio’s.  If there was an award for best hairstyle it should go to Kalea Salvador as Angelo’s secretary, who wore a 40’s type hairstyle and make-up, which even if her acting wasn’t as amusing as it was, the hair was amusing on its own.

The set was simple and generally worked well for the various scenes:  the office of Vincentio, a convent, a prison, the streets of Vienna but it also meant that the smallish stage was mostly taken up with the set, so that the actors were all downstage close to the audience.  As a result, the actors often had to speak upstage and some lines were inaudible.

There wasn’t a bad actor in the cast; however there was quite a bit of bad diction especially from as Bradford Farwell as Angelo.  About 50 % of his lines were incomprehensible.  He had the right body language and generally portrayed Angelo as a sexually repressed person who projected his own vices onto other people, but his performance was disappointing because he could not always be understood.

The best performances were from Cindy Im as Isabelle and Aishe Keita as Marianna, both of whom had clear diction, didn’t rush their lines, and could make Shakespeare’s language understandable without sacrificing the emotional lives of their characters.  Isabelle carried the show with the strength of her convictions, her passionate love for her brother and her belief that virtue trumps expediency.   Her quasi-nunnish costume left no one in doubt about her modesty-but showed off her curves, so that one could understand why one man fell in love with her and the other in lust.

To add to the comic relief, two actors delivered outstanding comic performances.  Scott Ward Abernethy as Pompey,  the “Tapster” aka a pimp has some of the funniest and most sexually explicit lines.   Marvelously he matched all those bawdy lines with a physicality to match. Another entertaining performance by a “clown” character was Tim Gouran as Lucio, Claudio’s ne’er do well friend with a licentious mouth and a wandering appendage.   Although his costume told us most of what we needed to know about his character, Gouran certainly inhabited the costume to the utmost in an amusing, authentic rendition of a lovable jerk, who kept the audience laughing.

Above all, credit for this production goes to Desdemona Chiang who brought so many creative touches to the script, molded the cast and technical aspects of the production to enlighten and entertain the audience.

If you have never enjoyed a Shakespeare Play before, go see this one, it is enjoyable from start to finish, the good guys are rewarded, the bad guys get their comeuppance and like a Jane Austen novel, social order is restored, with sexual appetites safely contained in suitable marriages.

Measure for Measure.  Seattle Shakespeare Company.  Center Theater, Seattle Center, 305 Harrison, Seattle, WA 98109.  Wed-Sun 7:30.  Sat & Sun Matinée 2 pm. Tickets  Group rates for 10 or more.

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