Austin Shakespeare's Measure for Measure offers a good time. It has dramatic intrigue, lots of clowning, a clever time warp setting in 1920’s Savannah, Georgia, and a highly accomplished cast.
At the same time that he's entertaining us, Shakespeare works some much deeper themes. These include the responsibility of authority, chastity, promiscuity, desire and disease; the role of the state in policing behavior; the insolence of office, and the equally reprehensible pride that may attend self-righteous virtue.
Summarizing the play in a lengthy phrase, Measure for Measure deals with the folly of the pursuit of fleeting pleasure and the difficulty of making virtuous preparation for inevitable death.
Pretty crunchy stuff.
Director Ann Ciccolella substitutes Savannah for Shakespeare's (albeit imaginary version of) Vienna, and the actors’ molasses Georgia accents give the words of this generally unfamiliar text further exotic tang. For that double distilled concoction—Elizabethan text to Savannah speech—you can expect your inner ear to take longer than usual to tune in. This cast’s clear diction helps.
The opening is a quick glimpse into a late night dive, with hectic ragtime music accompanying jazz babies and half-clad clients dancing in colored spotlights. That wordless surging tableau clears away and we find the Duke, Savannah's ruler, with cardboard suitcase packed, informing Escalus, his senior advisor, that he's conferring full acting authority over all, including life and death, to the irreproachable Angelo. The town has lived wildly, with lax application of the laws for at least fourteen years, and the public-shunning Duke goes absentee so another can clean up his town.
Measure for Measure posits the eternal conundrum of laws and justice. The Duke's regime has been benevolent but neglectful; Angelo's determination is to exercise the laws to their terrible fullness. The Duke's administration is "soggy," assuring a situation of “comfortable uncertainty,” to use the terms of Nico Colchester's widely quoted 1996 essay in The Economist. Angelo's administration will be "crunchy." ("Crunchy systems are those in which small changes have big effects, leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive.")
With these characters, Shakespeare closely examines the nature of temptation, will and guilt, turning them to show the vulnerability of even the most virtuous. Shelby Davenport as the acting governor, Angelo, delivers a nuanced portrait of a man confident in his own virtue, but gradually and inevitably appalled to find himself prey to lust and the intoxications of power.
Jason Amato's set design is minimalist but evocative, as might be expected of an accomplished lighting designer. The middle space in the Rollins Theatre is defined by a pattern of large white squares, while ropes stretching vertically upstage create a pattern of columns that might be a wall or a garden or the buttresses of a towering prison. Costumes are colorful and evocative of the 1920s Jazz Age.
Morgan Dover-Pearl as the gallant Isabella asserts an equally emphatic moral view. She is crystal-certain of herself when advocating her case with the perfidious Angelo, with her confused and despairing brother Claudio (Collin Bork), and with the Duke upon his return. Bork gives us a gripping moment when Claudio senses that he might escape the fearful unknowns of death, but is then crushed by his sister's moral certainty. Eventually, Isabella will face a comeuppance and find new humility in a trap laid by the Duke.
The clowns in this piece are familiar to Austin audiences. The manic Jenny Gravenstein as the bawd, Mistress Overdone, is loose limbed, lowering and comic. Robert Matney as Pompey the tapster/procurer has the cocky eloquence of an accomplished sea-lawyer. With pratfalls, prevarications and fast talk, he manages to convert his trade in those parlous times from assistant brothel keeper to assistant hangman, taking delight in both professions.
Justin Scalise as Lucio the "fantastic" has a good heart but a loose tongue and astonishingly poor judgment for which he eventually takes the fall. Scalise's timing is terrific. He's the Everyman of the piece and the citizen who takes every inch of liberty accorded and then some.
Harvey Guion as the pained elder counselor Escalus has a tart justice-of-the-peace demeanor with reprobates, and he is swift to respond to class ties when foppish Froth (Alejandro McDonald-Villareal) is before the bench.
Each additional mechanical is fit to the piece. David J. Boss as the prison master Provost shows a seriousness and moral resolve that raises the character above a mere plot contrivance.
Matt Radford as Duke Vincentio establishes himself from the first moments as a solid, serious and learned middle-aged gentleman of the old school. We enjoy his initiation into his disguise as clergyman, including a certain awkwardness of gesture and his shift of accent. His advice to the condemned carries somber warnings of the futility of much we pursue.
Radford has the assurance and learned aspect of a duke. In the final scene, he orchestrates revelations, punishments, obligatory marriages, and mercy for all. It's an artificially tidy solution in which only Lucio the fantastic suffers an indignity (marriage to a harlot—although he does escape both whipping and hanging).
Director Ciccolella's hectic opening nightclub scene and the awkward curtain call at the abrupt end of the piece further emphasize the contradictions in the text.
Shakespeare's sardonic joke on Vienna (here, Savannah) is that though all is changed, nothing has changed. Angelo's administration of crunchiness fails, due not only to his own weakness, but also to that of the Duke. The abrupt finish leaves the characters once again in a world of soggy, enigmatic standards. We do not even know if the surprise-wedding proposal at play’s end will be accepted. With questions unanswered, our thoughts are left to linger.
Austin Shakespeare's Measure for Measure offers entertainment according to your own measure: the comedy, the language, the themes or the grace of these players. After every performance, director Ciccolella and the cast gather for a ten-minute exchange with anyone who cares to linger a little more.
Measure for Measure runs through September 27th at the Rollins Theatre, Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 West Riverside Drive, Austin, TX 78702. Reservations and information can be found at austinshakespeare.org