Telling Her Story: “Measure for Measure”

Photo by Max Anderer

O, it is excellent 
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous 
To use it like a giant.
                                    Isabella (Measure for Measure)

by Jeff Grygny

For their inaugural production, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the Aura Theatre Collective lays their cards on the table right away. Black and white photos of women who have experienced sexual assault line the way to our seats. The first thing we see onstage is a dancer of an unconventional body type, decked  in spandex, leather, and bits of chiffon, fearlessly going through a strip club dance routine. The icy looks she shoots into the audience make it clear: she doesn’t give a damn what you think; no male fantasies will be entertained here. After this confrontational opening, Director Jaimelyn Gray surprises us again with a soberly thought-out, well-acted interpretation of a play commonly regarded as full of difficulties.

Measure for Measure isn’t performed often, and it’s easy to see why. A “problem play,” about law and justice, it combines elements of fairy tale, melodrama, dirty joke, and legal thriller. The characters keep doing things that make you go “What?” right up to the strangely unsatisfying ending. But  these difficulties harbor swirling questions that allow for many possible readings. For Gray, it’s a full-voiced condemnation of the sexual coercion of women by powerful men. And it works beautifully, both as message and as theater. By putting the spotlight on a woman’s experience of harassment in a social order that explicitly regards her as property, prize, and chattel, this production brings the plot and characters into focus while channeling the passion of a very hot contemporary issue. And making it’s vehicle a 400 year old play effortlessly underscores the depth and historical weight of the problem.

The production design hovers in a timeless realm between the Renaissance and the future, in a severe palette of black and red. Posey Knight’s frame-like set design creates spacial volume while recalling the Globe Theater’s entrances and exits. Sound designer Jake Thompson creates a mood of contemporary urgency without resorting to musical bombast. The Irish Cultural Center’s “Hallamor,” a former church, has challenging acoustics: unless the performers deliver their lines clearly and directly into the audience, their longer speeches tend to dissolve into aural mush. This is a great pity, as the actors clearly understand what they’re saying. But, as in any good production, their nonverbal cues convey most of the information we need about character, feelings, and relationships that we need to follow the action—which, as the intrigue progresses, really pulls us in. There are advantages to doing a seldom-produced play—not everyone knows what will happen next!

As Duke Vincentio, who tests his counselor by giving him complete authority and then lurking incognito, Randall Anderson gives as strong a performance as he’s given in his long career on local stages. Dignified and sympathetic, his character combines Sherlock Holmes, Machiavelli, Perry Mason, and Santa Claus, busily orchestrating ingenious fixes to various desperate problems. As the hypocritical counselor Angelo, who condemns a young man to death for fornication because he made his fiancée pregnant before they were married, Timothy Barnes shows ruthless intelligence along with a degree of self-awareness, chastising himself for lusting after the condemned man’s sister (and a novice nun, even). Yet Angelo’s qualms don’t stop him from offering a heinous bargain: her brother’s life in exchange for her virginity. Nor—like many a contemporary abuser— does he show any remorse when his perfidy is revealed. Logan Milway takes the comic role of a garrulous bro and runs with it: there is no Elizabethan innuendo that he can’t find a contemporary illustrative gesture for. And as Isabella, the brilliant, poised young woman who finds herself Angelo’s victim, Laker Thrasher (is that really a name?) embodies the emotional maelstrom that a self-possessed person can suffer when they become the object of predatory manipulation.

The performance ends with a shocking gesture that makes its point like a relationship-ending slap, leaving as bad an aftertaste as the play’s many expressions of a culture in which all authority is given to a small number of unaccountable powerful men. Did Shakespeare rise above his time? Another reading might cast the relationship between Isabella and Vincentio in a very different light. But Gray’s staging reveals that, without changing a line, Shakespeare can be seen as sympathetic to the plight of the women of his time, even if expressing himself through ambiguity. At least until a female Shakespeare appears, we can still be intrigued, provoked, and thrilled by such smart, passionate interpretations of the Shakespeare we have.

Aura Theatre Collective presents

Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare

directed by Jaimelyn Gray

playing through November 24

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