OSF’s Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure
Author: Shakespeare
Date attended: 14 September 2011 matinée
Venue: Angus Bowmer at OSF
Director: Bill Rauch

What elements need to work in order for the story to be successfully conveyed?

  • Humanizing (fallibility) of all three leads Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke and hopefully in humanizing conveying some likability
  • Angelo’s attraction to Isabella and the choice to proposition her
  • Claudio’s rationale that his life is worth more than Isabella’s chastity
  • Isabella’s innocence, naïvety, and stubbornness which would actually make her believe that her chastity is worth more than her brother’s life, which would leave Juliet unmarried to raise a child on her own
  • Isabella’s growth to compassion and greater human understanding by the end to plead for Angelo’s life

How did the production’s interpretation serve the story?

OSF’s interpretation is Vienna, an American city sometime in the seventies. They integrated live Italian music (signified by titles like “Song for Work,” “Song for Lost Love,” and “Song for Death Row”) and Italian dialogue translated into the original verse by other English-speaking characters. The casting decision which made Mistress Overdone a transvestite was my favorite choice by far.

Why this play now?

I struggle with Measure for Measure, like I assume most modern audiences and readers struggle with a play claiming to be a comedy that seems to be far from it. Isabella’s insistence that her chastity is worth more than a human life, Angelo’s utter abuse of power and reneging on his promise, the Duke’s inappropriate proposal, the Duke’s punishments which do not seem fair or just, Claudio’s betrayal of Isabella, Mariana’s stupidity, etc. all frustrate me. The required elements were all there, which helped with the story, but did not address the question why do we want to produce Measure for Measure?

Clearly, Shakespeare will always be done, and there’s nothing we can do about that, nor should we. However, just because it’s Shakespeare does not necessarily mean it’s good, vital, or necessary. Some of his plays are amazing, but some are completely outdated and even the best interpretations cannot save the story from itself. I feel the same way about Taming of the Shrew. I was recently proven wrong about Comedy of Errors only in the sense that I actually enjoyed the production which I never thought possible, but I still don’t see what Comedy has to say now. Which is the question I have with Measure for Measure. 

The one moment that I gained understanding about why this production, was in the final scene when Isabella enters to begin demanding justice. The production staged her entering from the upper house right door and when she began entreating the audience, they raised house lights ever so slightly to allow us to witness his downfall. “Ah,” I thought, “We will be his judge, jury, and hopefully executioner. We get to hold corrupt politicians accountable. This is the point!” Alas, the feeling wore off as the scene went on and the Duke played with Isabella, denouncing her, making her feel crazy, and withholding the information that her brother was actually alive. I understand that the Duke wants to hide Claudio’s life from Isabella in order to test her ability to forgive. However, I can’t forgive Angelo or the Duke.

The most tragic proof of Shakespeare’s insanity when he wrote the play is Mariana. She’s not only hopelessly in love with a jackass who already turned her down once because she no longer had money, she doesn’t seem to care that he propositioned Isabella for sex, or that Angelo will believe he’s having sex with Isabella as opposed to her. Adding insult, she still wants to marry him and the Duke punishes Angelo by forcing him to marry her. She’s his punishment. And she wants to be his punishment. She then entreats Isabella to beg for Angelo’s life. By this moment, I was squirming in my seat. He was going to murder her brother. She believes her brother is dead. Let him die. Don’t beg for him. Let him go.

So, no, I don’t think I have an answer why we should put this play on now. Perhaps a different interpretation, or a modern adaptation would bring to light what is salvageable and might actually develop characters for the women instead of what is currently represented. Although I did like that Isabella didn’t give the Duke an answer to his proposal. The lights went to instant blackout as soon as she walked up to a microphone to answer. The last sound was the intake of breath before she speaks.


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