With the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of Measure for Measure, director Fontaine Syer is trying to de-emphasize its classification as a “problem play”. She argues that its ambiguity and attention to complicated moral issues are far from problems, but instead are unique treatments of a society in upheaval and critical parts of the play’s importance – a perspective that the PSF full realizes.
The production runs in repertory with The Importance of Being Earnest, and their Measure for Measure is set in a 1900 Vienna that bears more than a passing resemblance to late Victorian London. This choice has much to recommend it. England was in a process of transition as Queen Victoria’s reign neared its end and traditional Victorian values were undermined by the attitudes of the fin de siècle. As Syer emphasizes in the production notes, Measure for Measure was written around 1603-1604, another period of somewhat chaotic transition to the reign of James I after the long stability of the Elizabethan Age. Besides reflecting the cultural context of the play when it first appeared, the Victorian influences also suggest an explanation for the draconian morality laws that are the focus of the play’s conflicts.
The costumes by designer Marla Jurglanis beautifully reflect this era while also capturing social distinctions between the characters. The most dissolute characters are the most richly dressed: Mistress Overdone swans around in a rich gold dress with violently pink and purple trim, her corset cinched to maximum effectiveness below an impressively-feathered hat and henna’d hair, while the fantastic Lucio sports not only scarlet trousers and cravat with a green and gold vest, but also a fez, a bold floral purple and gold coat, and a rich fur stole that required the sacrifice of many innocent woodland creatures. In comparison, the Duke and his set wear much simpler military-inspired outfits (his olive green, theirs slate blue) or sober pinstriped suits (Lord Escalus, also boasting an incredible pair of muttonchops). Isabella wears a white veil and a plain but well-fitting sky blue dress that modestly showcase her attractiveness, and her brother Claudio’s uniform coat suggests a sartorial allegiance to the social caste who (with the exception of Angelo) find themselves so loath to execute him. Angelo’s coat, meanwhile, is long and white, alluding to not only his icy demeanor but also the fastidious temperament required to keep such a garment in pristine condition.
Bob Phillips’s set is a slightly more abstract though no less fascinating reflection of the setting. Above the suggestion of terracotta floor tiles a massive rotating structure rises up like M.C. Escher’s jungle gym, with multiple platforms and open staircases held aloft and fenced in by wrought iron bars that match the atmospheric wrought iron street lamps. This structure is both stylish and intimidating: with sliding portals in the lower section that provide a satisfyingly ominous clang whenever they are used and its tendency to loom impersonally over each scene, it gives the impression that every character at some point is imprisoned by the forces around them, literally or no.
One of the reasons Measure for Measure is designated as a problem play is that its dark subject matter complicates its classification as a comedy, but the cast here provides an excellent balance between gravity and levity. Suzanne O’Donnell as Mistress Overdone takes a role easily reducible to a caricature and instead plays it as a woman thoroughly embedded in her own semi-criminal social circle and totally unaware that other modes of social interaction even exist. As her tapster Pompey, Brad DePlanche exudes a rude charm (emphasis on rude) that other characters cannot help but respond to, definitely despite their better judgment. The exception is Blake Ellis’s Angelo, whose disgusted chagrin at the fools and criminals before him manages to provoke a few moments of unexpected comic relief; combined with a surprisingly sympathetic rendition of Angelo’s tortured psyche, Ellis demonstrates a truly believable fall from grace by a man completely ill-equipped to deal with moral greyness. (Erin Partin as Isabella, the object of his obsession, toes the line between naturally dramatic personality and over-theatrical performance, but she carries it off without falling into parody.)
However, one of the greatest achievements of this production is that the majority of it actually makes sense, despite the challenges of the original text. Measure for Measure boasts some particularly complex plotting and obscure character motivations, but Syer and the cast are eminently convincing in portraying these as logical choices for the characters – particularly for the Duke of Vienna (an excellent Greg Wood). Syer begins the production with the Duke wandering the streets of Vienna and getting propositioned by a sickly, pregnant bawd. His horror at her condition makes it clear that his plan to install Angelo as his deputy to clean up the town is a quickly formulated and emotional response, and that the rest of his scheming throughout the play is his continued attempts to help the citizens he genuinely cares for when his first, hasty plan falls through. There are still a few too many plot twists for this to work perfectly – the Duke’s decision to keep Isabella in the dark about her brother’s survival comes off as more a bizarre attempt at pigtail-pulling than a (slightly) more believable test of her devotion to justice, given that he seems genuinely surprised when she argues to spare Angelo’s life – but for the most part the action unfolds clearly and each dramatic theme is given due weight and attention.
While Syer and the cast cannot quite overcome the actually problematic elements of the plot, they certainly succeed in presenting a nuanced and interesting exploration of moral ambiguity. Their impressive execution proves that for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Measure for Measure is no problem at all.