Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays — it is neither tragedy nor comedy in the traditional sense. The ambiguity and excessively complicated plot makes the play very difficult to perform in a coherent way with which the audience will truly connect.
A Noise Within, Southern California’s only classical repertory theater, was ultimately unable to overcome these difficulties in its production of Measure for Measure, but solid leading performances captured the complexity of Shakespeare’s work and saved the show from complete contemporary irrelevance.
In the play, the Duke of Vienna, distressed at the corruption in his city, decides to leave Lord Angelo in charge, while secretly disguising himself to observe what happens in his absence.
Angelo makes it his mission to get rid of unlawful sexuality, and a young man, Claudio, is sentenced to death for having pre-marital sex. His sister Isabella, an exceptionally articulate novice nun, must plead on his behalf to Lord Angelo, who says he will only spare Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. There are many twists along the way, all surreptitiously organized by the disguised Duke.
Karron Graves’ performance of Isabella was the strongest aspect of the show. The meaning of her words was always clear through the dense Shakespearean language, and her restrained energy commanded the audience’s attention in every scene. She captured the character’s purity and eloquence, never losing sight of her purpose in the beautiful language.
Part of the difficulty of performing Measure for Measure today is the modern audience’s inability to relate to what losing her virginity would mean to a young Elizabethan woman; but Graves’ fearful eyes and resolute, but trembling voice clearly expressed Isabella’s belief that giving her body would be worse than giving her life.
William Patrick Riley brought a charming, youthful energy to the character of Claudio and nicely showed Claudio’s transition from accepting death to save his sister to begging her for his life.
Though Geoff Elliott effectively portrayed Angelo’s inner conflict initially, the audience felt little of the violent passion there must be when he begins to force himself on Isabella, and his unbridled desire felt artificial.
Robertson Dean played the Duke with great authority, but some of the complexity of the character, the deceptive puppeteer of the whole show, fell flat. However, when the Duke finally expresses his own desire for Isabella, Dean subtly captured the moment’s moral ambiguity.
The comedic subplot of the play was executed effectively by Mark Bramhall, as Pompey the pimp, and Stephen Rockwell, as the promiscuous Lucio. They humorously captured the characters’ sarcastic, mischievous attitudes and got laughs out of all of Shakespeare’s clever sexual innuendos, which can often fail to translate.
Surprisingly, one of the highlights of the show was Thomas Moses, who makes a very memorable cameo as a drunk, stubborn prisoner Barnardine, who refuses to be executed. With an apathetic shrug at his pardon followed by a silent exit, Moses got the biggest laugh of the show without even saying a line.
A lack of strong directorial choices — necessary for the success of such a difficult play — kept the production from excelling beyond its generally strong performances. Director Michael Murray set the show in the present-day, but only perfunctory gestures were made toward the time period, such as an unnecessary water cooler or a sound system remote used once.
Simply dressing the characters in modern clothes does not inherently create resonance or relevance, and the production needed to embrace its setting more fully in order to make the choice meaningful.
Ominous music during scene changes, red lighting on the back walls and a sparse but bold set contributed to a kind of thriller-esque tone, but the mood wasn’t followed through during scenes or in the dialogue. Such a bold choice is respectable in the face of the play’s inherent ambiguity, but it ultimately detracted from the already questionable coherence of the play’s tone and purpose.
However, Murray’s staging made great use of the thrust stage, creating interesting tableaus with his actors. The final scene, with almost every character onstage and Shakespeare’s haphazard conclusion, was meaningfully handled. He left the play on an entirely uncertain note that draws attention to the moral ambiguity of the play as a whole.
In Measure for Measure, nobody is entirely good or entirely bad, and the audience is often unsure how to feel.
Strong performances and a compelling conclusion captured the complexity of Shakespeare’s work, but A Noise Within’s production ultimately demonstrated why it is considered a problem play without offering a coherent solution.