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Theater Review: Measure for Measure

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Tom Jaeger and Kristin Wold

With Sarah Cohen 00, Thomas Cork 00, Brian Keller 01, Fernando J. Paiz G, Damon Suden 99, Marketa Valterova 00

Presented by the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

Kresge Little Theater, through Sunday

The fall theatre seasons begins with the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble's production of Measure for Measure, arguably Shakespeare's darkest comedy. It is a combination of two wildly disparate elements: a drama-dark, ominous, verging on a tragedy-and a comedy-broad, slapstick, bawdy. It is to the credit of this production that Measure for Measure is immensely satisfying as both a drama and a comedy. What's more, it works as a whole, with comic and dramatic elements not overshadowing but highlighting each other. It does not feel like this play is assembled from two elements; it feels like a totally coherent world, where laughter and tears coexist so closely that it's impossible to separate them, just the way the light and darkness coexist in the characters.

The focal point of the story (which Shakespeare, as usual, borrowed) is the law which prescribes beheading as punishment for flirting. Sorry, wrong play. I meant to say that the law punishes fornication out of wedlock. Pretty soon young Claudio is hauled off to jail, and his sister Isabella comes to plead for his life with Angelo, who, in the absence of the Duke Vincentio of Vienna, rules the city with the iron hand. Soon, Angelo is quite smitten with the young woman and makes her a very indecent proposal.

Setting the play in Vienna is quite inconsequential; even Angelo and Vincentio don't sound very much like Viennese names. No, Shakespeare is writing a fable-something that would be hurt by giving it a precise place. The fact that Measure for Measure was clearly inspired by the politics of King James I is of little importance here; the play is much more interested in the spirit of the law, as opposed to its letter, and Vienna here is as concrete as Denmark in Hamlet. Taking a cue from this spatial universality, this production introduces another one-temporal-and reaps a major reward.

The costumes, setting, and general ambiance are not of the early seventeenth century; nor are they of the late twentieth century (which is a fashionable way to direct Shakespeare these days, though I don't know what is gained by having, say, Petruchio ride in on a motorcycle). This production is not firmly set in any time period, which makes it feel timeless.

This could be a paradox; after all, Shakespeare's popularity in his time resulted from him being timely, a pop writer, a provider of pulp fiction-albeit stylish and artistic pulp fiction. Measure for Measure is crammed up to the lid with utterly inspired plot twists: See a Duke disguise himself as a friar! See a city official try to seduce a nun right in his office! See a pimp train to become an executioner! All of this is briskly paced and never fails to entertain.

The same is true for the comic portion of Measure for Measure. The comedy is, to put it mildly, broad, and it takes on such hilarious subjects as sex and bodily fluids-and I'm not being sarcastic here. It's truly hilarious. While some early slapstick sequences fail, one gets the impression that they don't have much of an impact because they are not taken far enough. Later sequences, such as a three-stooge-like fight between Pompey the bawd and Elbow the constable, pile on more and more and more slapstick, until they end up being sublimely silly. After all, Shakespeare is only a little more shocking than Something About Mary-but much funnier.

If the comedy largely works, the dramatic elements of Measure are even more solid. There's nary a dark moment which fails to be spookily effective or downright scary. Kudos to the cast, comprised of six actors, who not only succeed in both comedy and drama, but also play seventeen parts among them.

Marketa Valterova doesn't hit a false note in her performance as Isabella, the single completely dramatic character in the whole play. Damon Suden steals every scene he's in as Lucio-a part which, were it smaller, would be called comic relief, but here is much more. Brian Keller certainly looks right as a Duke, although his line delivery could be sharper.

Three other actors impress not only by being good in their parts, but also by seamlessly switching from one part to another. Fernando J. Paiz plays Angelo, who turns from shy to confident to overbearing to tyrannical, but during each step downwards becoming more and more human. And at the same time, he's Pompey, clowning around with abandon. Thomas Cork has the somewhat underwritten part of Claudio (he's more of an object that a full-fledged character, with only one real scene to speak about), but he is highly impressive in two other parts - subtle and deliberate as an elder statesman Escalus, and laugh-out-loud funny as a leather-clad executioner. Sarah Cohen plays five characters, of different genders, ranging from a constable to a brothel proprietress, and manages to make all five markedly different.

Technical aspects are impressive as well. The set, designed by Bill Fregosi, looks both interesting and spare enough to represent the ducal palace, the jail, the garden, and everywhere else, and this is ably assisted by C. Scott Ananian's lighting design. Of special note are the costumes, monochromatically dressing all the characters into morally ambiguous shades of gray.

There is enough energy in the production to ride over the rough spots, of which there are quite a few. Some lines don't feel quite as spontaneous as they should be, and some sound work is distracting (the background music shouldn't be louder than the actors, and I presume the bit of rock music during the night scene at the ducal palace was unintentional). And, as I said before, some early slapstick does not feel energetic enough, All these are minor quibbles, though. My one major complaint is the final plot twist-an unexpected marriage proposal from one character to another-which feels abrupt and random. Most literature on Measure for Measure will mention this scene as the most challenging development in the play to be done convincingly, and it falls totally flat here.

Otherwise, this production succeeds both as a comedy and a drama. It is a worthy start for the fall theatre season at MIT. This weekend, we have The Mikado. Listing at least ten similarities between these two plays is left as an exercise to the reader.