This semester’s Mainstage “Measure for Measure” mixes the old and the new. Costumes secure the setting of 1930s to 1940s Vienna, and with the language of the 16th century and dramatic film noir lighting, the production is one giant anachronism.
It is to the cast’s credit that such a conversational style has been developed with the difficult language. “Measure for Measure” is, as the program points out, built almost entirely on puns, so much so that the conversations of the characters can sometimes be indecipherable, but the use of stereotypes helps in understanding the plot.
The over-the-top antics of Lucio, Abhorson and Froth (freshman Nicholas Moore, senior Paul Lewis and sophomore Noah Kersting, respectively) were well delivered and evoked the nostalgic banter of old-time movie stooges. The suggestive facial stylings of Pompey (junior Margaret Boyd) successfully portrayed a sleazy character.
The plot of “Measure for Measure” is somewhat maddening. It has long been considered a “problem play,” labeled as a comedy, but with a dark plot and deeply important questions about life and death. The Mainstage performance handled the dual nature of the play well; scenes of classic comedy are sandwiched between scenes of dark moral questioning. Dramatic lighting and the ever-present fog visually address the split.
“Measure for Measure” is worth seeing for its excellent acting and sets. Juniors Ed Houser and Elizabeth LaFrance delivered superb performances as Angelo and Isabella, and junior Zeina Masri translated the tough, loyal judge Escalus wonderfully. Senior Simon Lemaire played Duke Vicentio masterfully by portraying both the intricacies of the Duke’s plan while also giving the character a personality.
The costumes and sets were beautiful. The faux marble on the columns and truly authentic-looking clothes were impressive.
While the play explores the human fear of life after death and the problems with power and virtue, the plot is dated. I wondered why this particular Shakespeare play was chosen as the Mainstage, considering the datedness of the plot and the portrayal of women as sexual pawns in a game in which the men hold all the power.
It is hard to empathize with this society, in which it would be acceptable to execute a man for impregnating a woman. And that is perhaps the point: a man is condemned for a sexual crime while the characters around him crack endless sex puns, and the judge in charge of his case uses his position of power to fulfill his own sexual desires.
This is the play that Shakespeare wrote, but it was a different time with different expectations. While the time setting of the performance was changed from the 16th century to the 20th, the change seems only to be aesthetically motivated. The historical implications of placing the play in 1930s to 1940s Vienna are not addressed, and the varying Italian-Irish-New York accents of the actors make it clear that looks trump location.
Men in suits and women in high heels smoking cigarettes, and the passionate music and lighting of the film noir tradition contribute to the atmosphere of the play without granting any sort of apparent deeper context.
The Duke dons a disguise for the purpose of watching his city as a removed observer, just as the audience watches the play from the distance of a different time and place.
Measure for Measure runs until April 16th.