What manner of beast is this play Measure for Measure? The ruler of a city decides it needs to be cleaned up and straightened out, but instead of doing it himself he gives someone else the job and goes on vacation. The man he appoints, a strict moralist, cracks down on crime as expected, but he also proves to be prone to corruption. (Shades of contemporary crusaders such as former New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer here.) It looks as if either a nun must lose her virginity or her brother must lose his head. But this disaster-in-the-making doesn’t come about, because the play changes course. The duke hasn’t left town after all. He sticks around, disguised as a monk, to see what happens, and he ends up having to fix the fixer, so to speak: he must become the one who guards against the guardian, as Plato might’ve put it, which the duke does through a set of relatively comic maneuvers that often recall Much Ado About Nothing.
R. C. Bald writes, in his introduction to the play in the Pelican Complete Shakespeare, “In no other comedy of Shakespeare is there quite the same sense of tragedy averted, and to this fact are closely related the peculiar tone and technique of the play.” Whether it strikes a present-day reader or viewer as peculiar at all may depend on whether you’ve been conditioned to regard it that way, perhaps by being told that it’s a “problem play.” Life often veers between the desperate and the desperately funny; life doesn’t know it’s supposed to fall into any of the traditional genres, so it doesn’t, and we may feel this play is unremarkable in being first one thing, then another. There are other examples, some of them great, such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Regardless of how you view Measure for Measure, there are striking things in it. Isabella, who’s about to take up holy orders when she’s asked to plead for her brother’s life, is subjected to a form of sexual extortion that’s exactly like many cases that make the news today—and, no doubt, like many that do not. Mariana, a supporting character who enters the story late, and who in the Theatre for a New Audience production is fronting a band and running a nightclub when we meet her, is maneuvered into a life-or-death choice as well. Fortunately, she doesn’t mind the saving choice, because it restores to her something she had lost and still wants, but it may make you uneasy, as may another last-minute alignment that the plotting brings about. The play, despite its variation in tone, coheres because its overall concern is always moral. And it is essentially a comedy, which like many comedies leaves you satisfied while allowing you to ponder whether, in the world beyond the stage, dilemmas could so neatly have been resolved.
The TFANA production, which was directed by Simon Godwin of England’s National Theatre, does much to modernize the play, in shades both light and dark. The audience enters through a recreation of Mistress Overdone’s bordello, decorated with sex toys and the sort of people who would show you how to use them, which is amusing because it’s played lightly (unlike the ritual scene in the movie Eyes Wide Shut, which tries to be serious and becomes a little ridiculous). At the start of the play, the duke appears to be waking up on the floor from a pre-vacation party binge. Angelo, the man he appoints to clean things up, and Escala, his assistant, are dressed in modern-day business wear and speak in rather flat, clipped, bureaucratic tones. There are moments when a conversation takes the form of a heavy-handed government hearing, with the questioner’s voice (usually Angelo’s) carried through a mike and a PA system. Angelo looked rather Nixonian to me, though that may be a fluke, and he’s a fastidious type who relies on hand sanitizer. Mariana’s band, like the rest of the music, has a pop-rock flavor.
All these things make Measure for Measure more familiar without proposing any particular point, unless it’s that we should never trust the technocrats to run the state. You may see a parallel between Angelo’s authoritarianism and the current administration in Washington, D.C., but for me our government is withdrawing its authority in as many places as it’s asserting it. A better lesson emerges, though, one the play has always conveyed: doctrinaire severity must be tempered with understanding, compassion, mercy.
Jonathan Cake brings gentle command and bright charm to the role of the duke. As a behind-the-scenes puller of strings, this character shares something with Prospero, which leads me to wonder how Cake would do in the part. As Isabella, Cara Ricketts is luminous, both firm and plaintive in her pleas. I lost a few of her lines now and then, but that may be my aging ears. Angelo, as played by Thomas Jay Ryan, is the most fascinating figure in the play. He’s unshakably sure of himself; he has a strangely detached way of observing his own surprise at his desire for Isabella; and, though I can’t say how he does it, he’s never monotonous.
Measure for Measure runs through July 16 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in the Brooklyn Cultural District. Ticket information is available here.