A Well-Formed Problem Play

CalShakes extends its winning streak with a deeply moving Measure for Measure.

CalShakes is on a roll. While the past few seasons under Jonathan Moscone have certainly been marked by a spirit of innovation, this year’s shows have been both fresh and especially well-rounded and satisfying. CalShakes has been taking hard plays — the dry Julius Caesar, Shaw’s talky Arms and the Man — and making them look easy with more grace and assurance this season than in the past. The current production of Shakespeare’s “problem play,” Measure for Measure, is no exception. Written in 1602, this acid vision of the corrupting influence of authority and the limits of mercy is more modern in its construction and worldview than many of Shakespeare’s other works. Director Daniel Fish and his designers and cast bring all of these themes forth in a way that makes the play contemporary and totally engaging.

What author Frederick Boas first dubbed “the problem plays” — All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida — were all written between 1602 and 1604, or after Hamlet and before Othello. They’re known as problem plays because while they’re not exactly tragedies (usually a good man falling), they’re not pure comedies either. They’re possessed of more vitriol, common characters, and what some consider unsatisfying conclusions than the other plays. They’re not morally clear-cut. They’re also dirtier in tone than Shakespeare’s other works: fully equipped with panderers, officials on the make, and other kinds of scoundrels, they represent the seamier side of human nature with their satiric portrayal of corruption, deceit, and folly. In other words, were they written today they would do gangbusters box office. Two of the three include the infamous “bed trick” — one woman takes another’s place in a man’s bed without his knowing to either ensnare him or show him up as a fraud — a feature that so disgusted audiences that these plays often went unproduced for decades.

Measure for Measure, which takes its name from a Bible passage on justice, is based on several sources, mostly stories from Shakespeare’s time of magistrates who would spare a convict’s life in exchange for sexual favors from the wife of the condemned. Unlike most of the canon, the ratio of commoners to nobles is quite high; other than the duke and a few lords (apparently portrayed here as down-at-the-heels police detectives), the rest of the characters are bawds, criminals, and other ordinary folk. In an old conceit that fascinated Elizabethan audiences, Duke Vincentio (a wonderfully dithering and ultimately compassionate Michael Emerson) has decided that since he’s not doing a very good job of ruling Vienna from above, he’s going to delegate the job to his deputy Angelo and sneak around disguised as a priest to see what things look like at ground level. Not only does Angelo get to do the dirty work Vincentio can’t bring himself to do, but the duke also gets to evaluate his work, like an exceptionally powerful modern efficiency expert.

Angelo the deputy — described as having “blood of snow-broth” — takes the bit and pulls hard. His first acts are to shut down all the whorehouses and dust off an old law that makes extramarital sex a capital offense. Caught in the net are young lovers Claudio and Juliet. Claudio has “expresseth his full tilth and husbandry” by impregnating his beloved. Although they are due to be married once a dowry issue is sorted out, the fact that she’s pregnant now is enough to hang Claudio, who in this version works in a fast-food joint. Claudio begs his sister, the novice Isabella, to intervene with Angelo on his behalf.

Which is where Angelo starts to crack. He’ll release Claudio if Isabella will “lay down the treasures of your body,” demanding that she commit the same crime her brother is about to get killed for, but without the love or the engagement. Isabella refuses, but Vincentio — disguised as a priest — convinces her to agree to Angelo’s terms. Which is where the bed trick comes in. Angelo had long ago broken off his engagement to Mariana (a fabulously surly Jenny Lord); if Mariana can now be convinced to secretly take Isabella’s place, Isabella’s virtue will be spared and Mariana’s claim on Angelo will be cemented. The women agree, the deed is done, and then Angelo reneges, calling for Claudio’s immediate and secret beheading.

Phrased this way, it doesn’t sound like a comedy at all, but there’s a wild second act in which a chainsaw, a watermelon, and quite a few other props are carefully worked for laughs. The dialogue is green-apple crisp and tart, delivered cleanly and with consummate skill by Fish’s uniformly excellent cast. Yet the underlying horror still has a chance to quietly work its way to the surface, as Claudio gets closer to his maker and Isabella to the loss of her virtue. Although the story ends with lovers reunited and malfeasants rehabilitated, it’s a darkly comic ride to get there. No one is entirely clean in this one. Even Escalus, the most apparently noble, takes bribes. But neither is anyone completely evil. Angelo could be a truly sleazy character, and he is often characterized as such. Yet here it’s difficult to write him off as completely bad — or, more importantly, to feel superior to him. Bruce McKenzie does a phenomenal job of portraying Angelo as deeply conflicted. On the one hand, he’s the sort who has sworn to protect the law, in letter if not in spirit. On the other, he’s haunted by desire for Isabella, so much so that he will break the selfsame law. Yes, he’s a terrible hypocrite and an abuser of power, but his trembling and vacillation, his pauses, show the incredible toll that power is taking on him.

There is much about Measure that might seem unlikely at first glance to a modern audience, yet it proves strikingly germane. Capital punishment for premarital sex seems excessive, for example, yet fifty years after Shakespeare wrote Measure, adultery became a capital offense when the Puritans took power. Not to mention, as Cathleen Sheehan does in the audience notes, that in parts of modern-day Nigeria under Sharia law, adultery is now punishable by stoning to death. For that matter, a woman refusing to have sex to save her brother’s life might seem, well, old-fashioned, but Carrie Preston’s diamond-bright Isabella makes it clear that her choice is between a man dying quickly and a woman dying slowly, and we believe her.

Much of this production’s punch comes from stage images too powerful to look away from, whether it’s the ritualistic shaving of a man due for execution or the sight of the duke, possessed of a new gravity, returning from his faked absence as the strains of a Nine Inch Nails song fade away. Fish uses staticky musical interludes between scenes to create dense street scenes of a city riddled with rot. A cop binds a prisoner with duct tape, a man hires a child prostitute, and through it all trembles Duke Vincentio in a cassock and an oversized black hoodie.

Which is to say, not everyone is going to like this Measure. For example, the crowd that had difficulties with last season’s Macbeth because the witches were too sexy is sure to be horrified by this one. The warning comes early with a notice in the program thanking Good Vibrations for contributing a prop. While there are no visible witch panties this round, this Measure is not for the fainthearted, and probably not for young kids either. Teenagers will get it, although I doubt they’ll want to be sitting next to their parents. Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet this ain’t — Measure lacks not only fairies and high-flown romance, but a completely happy ending. What it has instead is a powerful message about how justice is served and the futility of eye-for-an-eye thinking.

What’s really amazing is the way Fish and his cast make something so ugly so beautiful. The story’s ugly, no question. And at first glance, so is this production — the spare set that evokes a grimy station-house basement with its flickering fluorescent lights and beat-up office furniture, the rusty steel mesh confessional/jail cell, all of the implied filth in the costumes. Yet this topnotch team brings something beautiful from the muck; something coherent, deeply moving, and well-formed.

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