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A CurtainUp Review
Measure For Measure

Hence shall we see/ If power change purpose what our seemers be. — Duke Vincentio
Measure For Measure
Jonathan Cake (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)
Simon Godwin stages Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in modern-dress at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center with fresh bite and emotional immediacy. With a top-notch cast led by Jonathan Cake, as the Duke, Godwin brings to light the rich theatrical treasures tucked within this dark play.

Okay, Measure for Measure doesn't rank among the Top Ten of the Bard's most popular plays. Samuel Taylor Coleridge found it to be "the single exception to the delightfulness of Shakespeare's plays"; George Bernard Shaw, though an admirer of the work, never reviewed a production, fearing "the whole thing would come to pieces" in his hand if he touched it.

Happily, Godwin has the boldness to grab the peculiar bull by the horns and stages it with smoothness and intelligence. But don't expect to see a traditional rendering of the Jacobean play that probes who's fit to rule. Godwin's new iteration is no museum piece but speaks to contemporary issues involving justice, religion, power, sex, and family relationships. Although you might disagree with some of his approaches to the dramatic material, his provocative vision of the tragi-comedy will imprint itself on your memory.

For starters, Godwin has the audience enter the theater through the back entrance of the theater to view the character Mistress Overdone's bordello and array of sex toys. It allows everyone a visual preview of the sexual malaise infecting Vienna and sets the sinister tone of the production. Once settled in their seats, viewers will watch a group of revelers enter the raised performing space, which is decorated with balloon bouquets, candelabras, and a stage-length carpet. One of the revelers, in fact, is Duke Vincentio himself, who ends the festive scene by shooting heroin into a vein in his arm.

A jarring moment? You bet. While some will argue that Godwin's choice is wrong for depicting the Duke in a stage action that compromises his moral integrity, it actually can be supported, more or less, by Shakespeare's text: The character Lucio in Act 4 dubs the absent monarch "the old fantastical duke of dark corners." True, Lucio is a notorious slanderer who likes to spread false rumors about the Duke (Lucio paints Vincentio as the Don Juan of his day). But say what you will, Lucio does hammer home the fact that Vincentio has a devious side and could possibly have skeletons in his royal closet.

The play's title is a reference to the gospel of Matthew: "With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again." This holy maxim both anchors the drama and adds dramatic tension to those episodes where we witness characters on trial in Vienna (think Claudio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone). What's more, it will serve as the legal and ethical guide for all who are tested in the new regime, which is governed by the Duke's newly-appointed deputy Angelo (The Duke supposedly leaves Vienna on a vacation but lingers in the city in the guise of Friar Lodovico, enabling him to spy on his subjects).

The Duke, of course, is testing his proxy to see how he exercises the authority of his office. Will Angelo pardon or execute the young Claudio, who's presently imprisoned for fornication with his fiancee Juliet? While the deadly fornication law has been in disuse for years in Vienna, the puritanical Angelo wants to make an example of Claudio and puts it back in practice. Not for nothing does Lucio say that Lord Angelo is "a man whose blood is very snow-broth."

The cast is superb. Jonathan Cake inhabits Vincentio with an urbane air and a dash of romance. Cake, who was last seen at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center as Benedict in Much Ado about Nothing, rightly infuses more darkness into his Vicentio who morphs from the Duke to Friar Lodovico, and then doubles back to the Duke at the denouement.

Cara Richards is ideally cast as the saintly Isabella, a novice in love with her own chastity. Other Isabellas I've seen have been able to put the character's halo firmly in place but fail to register the emerging humanity in the young woman at the play's end. Richards nails both the aspiring nun and the young woman who's just discovered that life beyond the convent's walls, and a marriage to the Duke, might be in her future.

Thomas Jay Ryan, as Angelo, is perfect as the Duke's proxy in Vienna. From the moment Ryan's Angelo enters, he's all about getting down to business and stamping out the sexual vices and corruption in Vienna. Before long, however, he will become infatuated with the saintly Isabella as she pleads for her brother Claudio's life—and utterly lose his moral bearings.

The supporting actors round out the strong cast. January La Voy does triple duty as Mistress Overdone, Escala, and Francisca, and makes each turn look effortless. Haynes Thigpen, as Lucio, not only gets his character's rancidness down right but shows that the glib-tongued rascal can be a good friend to Claudio in prison and strong supporter to Isabella when she's appealing to Angelo to spare her brother's life. Indeed, Lucio is reminiscent of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well. Two scabrous characters but with surprising psychological depths.

This production is chockful of surprises such as audience participation and music. In fact, there's a new musical twist to the "Moated Grange" scene in Act 4 by employing the play-within-a-play device. Godwin reimagines Mariana as a performer in a rock band and fleshes out the conceit by having selected audience members sit at cafe tables to watch her perform with a live band. When Mariana suddenly spots the Duke-Friar at one of the tables, she immediately calls out to him: "I cry you mercy, sir, and well could wish/ You had not found me here so musical."

Whether you think all this gimmicky or not, Mariana is an embodiment of that theatrical magic that transforms mere words on the page into meaningful stage action. If you ever felt that she was a cipher who participates in the bed-trick designed by the Duke-Friar to expose Angelo's sexual hypocrisy and trap him into marrying his former fiancée (that would be Mariana), go see this new interpretation. Not only does Mariana have spirit as she agrees to physically substitute herself for Isabella, but she seems like a real twenty-first century woman who's determined to prevail over her circumstances.

This is Godwin's first time directing Shakespeare with an American Company. Let's hope that he crosses the pond more often to retool other Shakespeare plays in New York.

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Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin
Cast: Jonathan Cake (Duke Vincentio/Friar Lodovico), Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo), Cara Ricketts (Isabella), Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Provost), Kenneth De Abrew (Froth, Messenger, Abhorson, Friar Peter, and the 2nd Gentleman), Zachary Fine (Friar Thomas, Elbow, Barnardine, and the 1st Gentleman), Leland Fowler (Claudio), Merritt Janson (Mariana), January LaVoy (Mistress Overdone, Escala, and Francisca), Christopher Michael McFarland (Pompey), Sam Morales (Juliet), Haynes Thigpen (Lucio).
Musicians: Drew Bastian, Robert Cowie, Osei Essed
Scenic and costume design: Paul Wills
Lighting: Matthew Richards
Composition and sound design: Jane Shaw
Choreography: Brian Brooks
Production stage manager: Megan Schwarz Dickert.
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn.
From 6/17/17; opening 6/25/17; closing 7/16/17.
Running time: approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 6/23/17

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