Tonight at 8 p.m. marks the culmination of months of work for the University of Dallas drama department on this semester’s main stage production: William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”
“Measure for Measure” opens as the Duke of Vienna hands over power to his unscrupulous advisor Angelo. When Isabella, an aspiring nun, is forced to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life, Angelo’s response triggers sexual intrigue, masked plots and political corruption.
Is this your typical Shakespearean play? Not according to director and Associate Professor Stefan Novinski, who decided to move the play from Shakespeare’s setting in Vienna.
“It’s a weird, darkly comic play,” Novinski said. “It also always felt warm to me. I was thinking New Orleans, the Caribbean world.”
Associate Professor and Costume Shop Manager Susie Cox shared some research with Novinski about New Orleans in the 1940s. Novinski was walking to a meeting with her when the inspiration struck.
“The late ’40s is noir,” Novinski said. “You never know what you’re standing on in film noir … That’s this play. Weird characters. Sub-tropical. Warm. 1940s. Noir.”
Novinski settled on 1940s Havana as his setting rather than Shakespeare’s late 16th-century Vienna. Two of UD’s Shakespeare experts, Scott Crider, Ph.D., and John Alvis, Ph.D. shared their thoughts on this exciting new take.
“There are a number of features in film noir which I think make it a really apt and appropriate analog for the Vienna of ‘Measure for Measure,’ ” Crider said. “For one thing, you have the darkness of film noir, the fact that it addresses dark moral questions about darker aspects of human nature, which the play is clearly doing.”
Novinski agrees that the setting allows the audience to explore two genres.
“You explore late ’40s noir aesthetic principles, and you get to explore one of Shakespeare’s most complicated and touching plays,” Novinski said.
Crider, who incidentally taught Novinski in a class on Shakespeare at UD, believes that Shakespeare would by no means be rolling in his grave at this change.
“[Shakespeare] has a great deal of respect for the theater company’s capacity to bring the play alive from the page to the stage,” Crider said. “My hunch is that we’re going to get spectacular costumes from Professor Cox, and that the staging and the lighting from Professor Turbyne will be really quite phenomenal.”
Crider’s hunch may be right on target. Lead actors Simon Lemaire, Elizabeth LaFrance and Ed Houser all spoke enthusiastically about the costumes and set design. Professional lighting designer and former UD professor Tristan Decker returned to do lights for this production.
“You can see every light, and you can see half of people’s faces on purpose,” LaFrance said. “It’s incredible how the film noir lens that we’ve been putting on the whole time is now visible. It’s visually stunning.”
“The work that you’re going to see is shocking, amazing, scintillating,” Novinski said, referring not only to the design but also to the actors’ efforts to dive into Shakespeare’s complicated text.
“We spent a week just on the figurative language of the text,” Novinski said.
“I was able to work on the text a good while — probably a month and a half — before I started taking it to memory,” Lemaire said. “I could be sure that once I started memorizing, I already knew what the lines meant.”
Lemaire is portraying Duke Vincentio, the character with the fifth most lines in all of Shakespeare’s works.
“One of the tricky things about the Duke is he never shuts up,” Lemaire said. “Only Hamlet, Othello, Iago and King Henry VI have more lines.”
At a school where every student has to study Shakespeare in the Literary Tradition sequence, the actors have been mindful not to approach the script as a strictly literary text.
“That’s pretty destructive to your process as an actor,” Houser said. “You don’t want to be objective as an actor — you just want to find your character’s truth.”
“Some matters of interpretation are going to be decided by the way it is acted,” said Alvis. “You gain with one hand what you have to give up with the other.”
“In the University of Dallas community, where so many of us are bookish, we tend to think of Shakespearean drama as simply a textual experience,” Crider said. “The theater is one of the places where every Shakespearean is humbled by the realization that the play is much larger than his or her interpretation of it.”
“Measure for Measure” is a play with, as Crider puts it, a famously ambiguous ending. Novinski and his cast are eager to see their audience’s reaction to this production.
“There are massive themes going head to head,” Houser said. “First and foremost I hope that they see those battles going on and that they leave the theater still working on those themselves. Because of how we ground it in film noir … it’ll also feel like a very real, very human piece of life.”
“This is going to be an awesome experience to see Shakespeare, which we tackle so well at this school, elevated on a really cool aesthetic level in a truly thrilling fashion,” Lemaire said. “I don’t think anybody on this campus has been able to experience [this] yet.”
The UD community can experience the play over the next two weeks to see, as Crider said, “some of the best theater in the metroplex.”
“Measure for Measure” will run from April 6 – 16 in the Margaret Jonsson Theater.
There will be a symposium discussing “Measure for Measure” on April 8, 2016 from 3:30 p.m.-5 p.m. in the Art History Auditorium. The event will feature Dr. Crider, Dr. Kenney, Dr. Burns and Professor Novinski.