“Shakespeare in the Park” and “pastoral comedy” are no longer quite synonymous, thanks to many excellent innovations and subversions on the theme, but there is still a powerful association between the two. The Harrisburg Shakespeare Company’s production of Measure for Measure, therefore, seems to deliberately fall in the innovative and subversive camp: for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival, they present one of the problem plays with a hi-tech futuristic setting and extra doses of moral ambiguity.
The setting is not as incongruous as one would expect. The bandshell at Reservoir Park, where the performance is held, is itself rather futuristic-looking, a giant half-dome of concentric circles and an elaborate scaffolding for lighting. Ian Potter’s scenic design provides an intriguing interior to represent mid-twenty-first-century Ferrara. The future is somehow both dystopian and bright, at least color-wise: whether in prison or on the grungy city streets, vibrant red and cerulean accents lend a certain shabby cheerfulness. Even the art deco-inspired government buildings and transportation system brighten their white, grey, and black marble with vivid yellow trim. The latter is a particularly clever nod to the conceptual design: a mysterious cross between an elevator and a transporter, it looms over the set like a trompe l’œil skyscraper and whisks characters on- and off-stage with a hearty VWOOM.
L.A. Hammond’s costume design also seems to seek a futuristic look by blending various influences, but with much more limited success. While the ultimate result mirrors the diversity of modern dress, the costuming choices offer little context for the future’s sartorial standards: the Duke’s white suit includes a skirt and pants; the witty Lucio, gentle Julietta, and dissolute Barnadine all sport garishly-coloured loungewear; Mariana opts for a gauzy Bohemian style; Pompey is street punk by way of Urban Outfitters; and Claudio’s undershirt and shiny chest-piece combination is only one robotic suit short of starring in Iron Man. The only consistent factor to emerge is that in the future, everyone is very fond of boots. There are a few successful instances – Claudio’s and Lucio’s matching blue cuffs hint at their friendship; the navy uniforms of the Provost (a neat jumpsuit) and Constable Elbow (unfortunate shorts most often seen on hapless schoolboys and mailmen) contrast their respective competency – but these only highlight the need for more coherent representations of the future’s social dynamics.
Similarly, one wishes director J. Clark Nicholson had more specific goals for his interpretation, though individual elements of the futuristic setting play very well. Characters now eavesdrop and share asides via bluetooth, and spacey sound effects for the transporter, government-issued touchpads, and the Provost’s taser-sleeve are perfectly executed fun touches from sound designer Michael Banks. Nicholson does not privilege the flashy setting at the expense the text: the vaguely dystopian Ferrara provides an appropriate social context for its draconian morality laws, and the production uses an edition of the script by Kate Powers that attempts to emend inconsistencies and extraneous material attributed to Thomas Middleton’s 1620 revival of the play (hence the change from Vienna to Ferrara). However, Nicholson’s bold choices never quite live up to their promise. The Duke’s constant meddling and Angelo’s enforcement of privacy-busting fornication laws cry out for a Big Brother-analogue that never appears. The clever subversion of combining saintly Mariana’s character with notorious madame Mistress Overdone (a move that apparently justifies Angelo’s rejection of her for being “disvalued in levity,” but which is still congruent with the play’s questioning of society’s sexual mores), as well as playing up the rumors of the Duke’s own wild behavior, fizzles out without a resolution.
Part of this can be attributed to the mismatch of production and cast. Most of the actors adopt a broad style that, while well-suited at conveying basic information to an audience scattered over the hills of Reservoir Park, simply does not mesh well with the play’s need for subtlety to illuminate the often obscure motives of its characters. Tara Herweg as the Duke is particularly ill-served by this: her enthusiastic glee at the formulation of some convoluted plan partially explains the Duke’s scheming, but for all the discussion and hearsay of the Duke’s own predilections the play ends without drawing any conclusions about her final opinion on Ferrara’s licentiousness. Moreover, her scenes with Kathryn Miller’s Isabella barely hint at her surprising proposal in Act V. An additional problem is that apart from some well-played spots of physical comedy (and a hilarious take on the Duke trying to resign Claudio to his fate and failing miserably in 3.1), much of the play’s humor does not translate well to this style, rendering some comic scenes more of a burden than a relief. However, this broad approach is not without its successes, particularly in those roles that allow for more straightforward characterizations. Kathryn Miller carries the show as Isabella, imbuing a character often (unfairly) accused of frigidity with a warmth and sweetness that complements her strength of mind. Likewise, Emily C. Gray gives the Provost a surprisingly strong presence as an officer of the law beleaguered not only by exasperating criminals but also by the conflict between what is right and what is legal.
It is moral quandaries like these that form the heart of Measure for Measure, and it is a shame that this production cannot quite do them justice. However, its shortcomings are not due to a lack of creativity and ambition, but scope: the execution deserves to be as big as its ideas. Despite this, the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company makes a spirited attempt to turn an unlikely problem play into a summer blockbuster.