Measure for Measure, now onstage in a sterling production at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington through Aug. 4, may shock anyone who considers Shakespeare's work as irrelevant.
While he wrote the play in 1604, England was suffering through an unprecedented pandemic, with blame thrown in all directions. Political divisions were exacerbated by cultural and religious strife and scathing judgmentalism.
While all that may sound familiar enough, Measure for Measure also tells the story of a young woman abused by a powerful man.
Isabella, desperate to save her wrongfully condemned brother, appeals to head honcho Angelo, who makes her an offer: Give me your body and your brother will go free. The appalled Isabella threatens to reveal the hypocrisy of the sanctimonious Angelo. But he throws a shattering question in her face. "Who will believe thee, Isabel?"
This #MeToo moment is one of the reasons Measure has shot up the charts in numbers of productions, elbowing in on perennial favorites like Macbeth or Julius Caesar. And in director Jenny McKnight's streamlined production at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Measure is funny, profane, touching and riveting entertainment.
All the characters in Measure are damaged goods. The Duke of Vienna, played by the fine Grant Goodman with an almost Hamlet-like uncertainty, abruptly reveals that he is taking an indeterminate sabbatical and entrusts all power to his inexperienced cousin Angelo, embodied by Chauncy Thomas with the hubris of a striving mid-level bureaucrat. The Duke skips over the obvious choice, Escalus (played by the noble and deeply humane Lisa Gaye Dixon). As Angelo spins out of control, hypocritically enforcing long-abandoned laws to the letter, Escalus tries to keep the city together.
Angelo's first act is to arrest Claudio (the hungry-for-life Nathan Stark) for the capital crime of impregnating his betrothed Juliet (Nora McKirdie). That no one has been charged on these grounds for 19 years is of no matter to power-mad Angelo. The convent-bound Isabella (Isa Guitian, in a performance of fear and fire that is the play's emotional and moral core) tries to save her brother, setting up her fateful confrontation with Angelo. Meanwhile, the Duke, disguised as a Friar, explores the city he has long ruled, especially the slapstick comedic underclass, epitomized by the outrageous Mistress Overdone (the hilarious Erica Cruz Hernandez) and the slippery Lucio (Dan Matisa, in a brilliant, crowd-pleasing comedic turn). Eventually the Duke – deus ex machina-like – exposes Angelo, saves Claudio, unites wayward lovers, and even proposes marriage to the traumatized Isabella.
Director Jenny McKnight has made judicious cuts, with one scene flowing into the next in an overlapping cinematic approach. The action is heightened, clarified, and the running time is a bit over two hours. This is all good, although the trimming perhaps exposes some structural problems in the last third of the play, and there are missed opportunities to spotlight the developing relationship between the Duke and Isabella. Still, the production is so strong that these issues are forgotten by the time the Duke's stage management and manipulation of others brings the story to its conclusion.
The musical score by M. Anthony Reimer adds to the cinematic flow. The costumes by Susie L. High are timeless, with period touches clearly delineating the characters in a production where actors double in two or more roles. John C. Stark's set design brings the hierarchy to life, emblematic of corporate or religious structures, while incorporating the controlling power of the prison.
That last-minute marriage proposal is a perplexing element in this fascinating play. Oddly, Shakespeare provides no words of reply for Isabella. Does she accept the Duke, or reject him as yet another man trying to control her? It has been played both ways. In this case, Isabella accepts the offer – which is both thought-provoking and deeply satisfying.
Building to its somewhat unsettled "happy" ending, Measure for Measure, and this production, manages to encompass the whole point of life – acceptance, honor and love – and the terrible risk of missing out on any of it.
Relax at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Shakespeare Festival's comfortable open-air theater echoes Shakespeare's historic Globe and is set in the jewel-like Ewing Manor grounds, about an hour from Springfield. It's a great theater and the acoustics are superb. Go early, bring a picnic supper and your favorite refreshments, or takeout – there are no on-site concessions this year due to COVID.
If you've never seen a Shakespeare play – relax. Think of it as a music concert, where you don't expect to understand every lyric, yet the overall experience is worth it. Read a synopsis of the play. You'll get the gist of the story and that's enough.
Measure for Measure runs in repertory with Shakespeare's riveting and magical The Winter's Tale, alternating nights through Aug. 6. –Dennis Thread
Dennis Thread of Springfield is a freelance writer and director. He recently created the digital theater production Wicked Waltz! The Boston Dip & 1871 Springfield as a benefit for the historic Edwards Place/The Springfield Art Association.