by Lichen Tilley
MEASURE FOR MEASURE opened the Bard on the Beach's new Douglas Campbell Theatre with a full house in attendance on the evening of Thursday, July 28th for the opening. Prior to the performance, Christopher Gaze, the Bard's Artistic Director, addressed the audience, giving tribute to Douglas Campbell, for whom the 225-seat studio theatre is named and whom Gaze refers to, as his mentor. Campbell, in the audience, graciously received the acknowledgment.
The studio, an open-ended tent, featuring a thrust stage and framing the skyline of the West End, is a welcome addition to the Bard Festival, which has increased in popularity over the past 10 years.
This production uses the official script of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production, and the director, Miles Potter, notes that the play often has been viewed in two contexts by scholars and criticsas a "dark, bitter condemnation of human failings or as a transcendent vision of Christian ideals and forgiveness." It is not played cynically nor as a Christian morality play by this cast, rather, a balanced approach has been taken by the director.
Having been written prior to OTHELLO, MACBETH and KING LEAR but shortly after ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, Shakespeare plays on the standard comedic contrivance of disguise, but unlike later "disguise" and "mistaken identity" plays, it does not become farcical, except for the antics of stock buffoons. Although a comedy, it is a comedy with a difference.
The themes underling the comedy revolve around dilemmas of hypocrisy and justice. The Duke of Vienna, concerned about the moral laxity of his duchy, appoints a deputy governor, Angelo, to see if the deputy can do a better job of governing, and then pretends to leave the country. After appointing Escalus, second in command, the Duke takes his leave.
Angelo throws himself into his task with vigour. The first to be condemned for corruption is Claudio whose fiancee, Juliet is pregnant. Because of this illegitimacy, Claudio is imprisoned, scheduled to be executed. His sister, Isabella, about to become a nun, is importuned by Lucio to beg for her brother's life. Angelo, not known for his physical passion is overcome by desire for Isabella as she argues for Claudio's release. Although recognizing his dilemma, he proposes she exchange her body for Claudio's life. Isabella, horrified at his proposition, tells Claudio, who, unhappy with his dilemma begs her to acquiesce to Angelo's unpalatable suggestion.
Isabella's dilemma: her soul or her body?
The Duke, in the meantime, watching events unfold, and disguised as a friar, suggests that Isabella trade places with Mariana, to whom Angelo was once betrothed. . This plan is successfully carried out, but Angelo, breaking his promise, refuses to release Claudio. The Duke intervenes and persuades the Provost to hide Claudio and to prove his death by using the head of another prisoner scheduled for execution. So that Isabella will denounce Angelo, which she is hesitant to do, the Duke lets her think that Claudio has been executed.
The Duke sends a message to Angelo to say he is returning to the city. Angelo goes to meet him and is confronted by Isabella and Mariana. After a few more twists of the plot, Claudio is reunited with Julietta and Isabella. Angelo is forced to marry Mariana but under the sentence of execution. Both Mariana and Isabella plead for his life. The Duke relents. He then proposes to Isabella and after a brief pause, she accepts.
This adaptation of MEASURE FOR MEASURE provides for seven players although, nine would have better served the play. Naturally, because of the small cast, some of the male roles were played by women. Kevin Williamson plays the Duke of Vienna, and as the Duke disguised as a friar. David Marr plays Angelo and Abhorson, (the executioner). Denyse Wilson excels in the roles of Isabella and Mistress Overdone. Neil Ingram plays Pompey and Claudio; Dean Paul Gibson, Lucio, Friar Peter and Barnardine. Julietta, the Provost and Elbow are played by Michelle Porter; and Mariana, Escalus and Francisca are well performed by Jean Forgie.
Many of the actors change from one character to another, in front of the audience. The production's use of this artifice is introduced immediately. The production opens with a song, a jazzy lament by Mariana, which is unexpected and at that point, does not seem to have much bearing on the events following. The singer then changes into Escalus, one of the major characters of the play.
The second noticeable transformation occurred when Denyse Wilson performs her first transmogrification from Mistress Overdone, the whore, to Isabella, the novitiate. This quick costume change was completed behind a gossamer screen, at the back of the stage, distracting the attention of at least one male viewer in the audience from the activities occurring front stage.
Ms. Wilson carried off the change of costume and the change of character extremely well. When she reappeared as Isabella, such was her talent that she would have been unrecognizable had it not been for the visible change of habit. Her voice, demeanor, and bearing changed to reflect her new character. But while the transformation of Mrs. Overdone into Isabella was slick, and perhaps, added prurient interest, the rest of the on-stage changes: Escalus to Mariana, and Lucio to Friar Peter, particularly in the final act, were sometimes distracting. The addition of at least two more cast members would have made this on-stage costume changing unnecessary.
The costumes were meant to be modern. The Duke, Angelo and Escalus in corporate uniforms with old school ties established their positions of authority and established a modern tone, as did Angelo's bathrobe.
However, Isabella's novitiate costume and the costumes worn by the friars were not updated to modern habits and clerical collars. The inconsistency in costumes seemed a minor but puzzling flaw. It was nice that the costuming was kept uncomplicated; an effect that added an element of humour and matched the staging. For example, the device for disguising the Duke as a friar, a pair of sunglasses and a cowl robe, was reminiscent of Clark Kent parting his hair on the other side to become Superman.
The staging was deliberately simple. The set was somber, but given the nature of the theme of the play, a dark stage was not disconcerting. A black wall, with the city in the background, captured the essence of the rampart of the Duke's palace and of the prison. There was a minimum of props: a table, several chairs and two briefcases. This minimalist approach worked fairly well throughout the performance with a few minor exceptions. When the table was moved by the actors at the end of a scene, its repositioning seemed superfluous and curious. The table was used for two purposes: first, to establish the authority of the person sitting behind it ( the Duke in one scene, Angelo in other scenes and the Escalus in his/her dealings with Elbow and Pompey) and second, to give Isabella something to hide under at one point ( a totally unnecessary device). It seemed to me that the play could have been performed equally as well without the table.
Although the opening jazz/blues song was not Shakespearean and did not either add to nor detract from the play, in general, use of other music did add to the atmosphere. The Gregorian type chanting in the background during the proposition scene enhanced the duality of Angelo's nature which was portrayed with sincerity.
Ms Wilson, an extremely talented actress, was better as Isabella than as Mistress Overdone, who was somewhat overdone and played almost "too modern" in style. The one jarring note about her characterization as Isabella was crawling under the table when faced with Angelo's proposition. It seemed unnecessary and out of character for Isabella, but it may have been a directorial preference to preface the entrance of the Duke as friar.
Neil Ingram successfully played Claudio and Pompey. Although the portrayal of Claudio as a whimpering "nerd" was grating, again, it may have been the choice of the director rather than that of the actor. He was very good as Pompey, playing broadly enough to present his humour but sufficiently restrained to avoid affectations.
Dean Paul Gibson was excellent in his three roles. His expressions,certainly his "double takes" as Lucio were marvelous, and his slapstick as Barnadine, perfectly timed. But because he was required to change from Lucio to Friar Peter in front of our eyes, his friar role did not appear as accomplished.
David Marr's role as Angelo was sensitively portrayed; the single criticism of his portrayal is that the attraction to Isabella seemed too sudden. His appearance as the axeman, Abhorson, in full WWF masked costume, was amusing, although he did not have many lines in that role.
Because of the necessary rapid appearances of Elbow and the Provost or because of the similarity in their costuming, Michelle Porter, playing those roles, did not come across as well as others in the cast.. Her transformation into Julietta was fine, but this always occurred off-stage and after an interval of time.. Elbow could have been portrayed more subtly but was probably played over-broadly and too loudly in typical Shakespearean "rude mechanical" style. The same could be said for Pompey.
At the play's outset, Kevin Williamson, as the Duke, spoke much too quickly and the cadence was off. His is the first long speech of the play and should set the tone and tempo but because of his rapidity, he did not immediately involve the audience in the action of the play. The beginning scene should have been less hurried.. Instead of coming across as: "I am going to test Angelo", it came across on Thursday, as "I am going to play a trick on the city and come back dressed as a monk." His role might have entailed less posing and posturing. His performance needed to be more measured and less "one note". When he assumed the role of the friar he changed pace, and when he returned to the stage as the Duke, he was much better.
Jean Forgie did a phenomenal job as Mariana and as Escalus, but the necessity of having to change character in the final scenes was a weak point in the production. She appeared on stage one second as Escalus and the following second, as Angelo's bride-to-be. There was nothing lacking in her performance; the two characters were well defined but her change of characters is the most glaring instance of where an additional cast member could have been used to advantage.
In spite of these minor criticisms, the play was extremely entertaining, professionally performed, and a boon to this year's festival program.