I was recently speaking with a colleague of mine about what an exciting experience it is to see a Shakespearean play that we have neither read nor seen before. It's even better when it's a play that we hear very little about. For me, Measure for Measure is one such play, and I had the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time with an all-women cast in the Women's Shakespeare Company's production at Altered Stages.
The plots, characters, nuances, jokes, and even the subjects of Shakespeare's plays have been borrowed wholesale so often in contemporary entertainment that the lines have almost been blurred as to who originated the ideas. Certainly, Shakespeare himself was not the creator of many of his plots and characters; he borrowed from mythology, classical drama, poets, and even his own contemporaries. But no one put a mark on these ideas quite like Shakespeare; his versions of various stories have become quintessential.
Still, in my more somnambulistic moments, I find myself thinking that Shakespeare needs to come up with some new material! I think this is the reason why people are afraid of going to see a Shakespearean play; it's very difficult to keep his ideas fresh, so we simply get bored. This is especially true with comedy. We've seen so many comics and clowns that, when the somewhat cerebral fools make their numerous appearances in the Bard's plays, they just don't seem that funny. I don't think I'll ever laugh again at the buffoonary of the Mechanicals' fouled-up play-within-a play at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, because I've seen it--and laughed heartily--so many times before. Who cares if they owe it all to Shakespeare? I saw the same thing on Perfect Strangers in 1986, and it was much funnier.
So, that's the challenge. Not to mention the vast difference between how things work now and how they apparently worked back then. These days, theaters had better be prepared to make Shakespeare exciting, or they're going to lose us fast.
The Women's Shakespeare Company rises to the challenge with Measure for Measure--though, when the play first started, I thought: "Here we go again." Duke Vincentio (Ellen Lee) leaves town for awhile and, in his absence, he puts the pseudo-Puritanical Angelo (AnneMarie Falvey) in charge. Giuliani-like, Angelo digs up an old law that forbids pre-marital sex and gives him the authority to sentence people to death for its infraction. This is a power he exercises almost immediately upon young Claudio (Beatrice Cipriano).
In comes Claudio's sister, the virginal Isabella (Natalie Zea), to save the day. Unluckily, she can only free her brother if she sleeps with Angelo, who has become very smitten with her (and who seems indifferent to the illegality of the acts if he himself is the one committing it). The Duke, however, had been plotting the whole time to return to town in disguise, just to see how his people would behave in his absence. When he returns disguised as a Friar, he is not at all pleased. But instead of throwing off his frock and announcing, "Enough is enough, already," he decides to have a little fun by playing puppeteer to the other characters.
Execution for pre-marital sex? Uh-uh, don't buy it. The Duke spends three-quarters of the play disguised only by a hood? I don't think so. (But then, when Clark Kent disguised himself with nothing more than black-framed glasses, I didn't buy that, either). A woman sexually harassed by a head of state does not blow the horn on the creep? Now I'm really having trouble believing. But that doesn't last long.
Director R.J. Tolan has directed a very masculine, phallic production; I counted four of the macho characters smoking, one accessorized with a toothpick; and when Isabella relishes a sexual set-up, she has a cigarette also. And it all works. As if I had never seen such devices before, I was totally enthralled, waiting for the next plot turn to see what was going to happen. I loved not knowing this play.
What is even more exciting is that the Women's Shakespeare Company has found a true star. Natalie Zea speaks Isabella's lines so mellifluously, and with such earnestness, that I understood and believed every word she said. Lisa Raymond, as Pompey, is also very charming.
Something that irritates me about contemporary drama is when the title of a play is a line from that play. But when Duke Vincentio says, "Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure," I understand why so many artists have used this device. It works--and in Shakespeare's hands, it works all the better.