By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The opening image of Nancy McAlear’s production of Measure For Measure, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s companion piece to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hawrelak Park this summer, is a male pole dancer in a cage.
It’s perpetual party time in Vienna (it’s been called Shakespeare’s Sex in the City). “The city,” says a disembodied voice by way of introduction to a genuinely strange and eerily modern play, “is about to come down hard on law-breakers.”
Ah, but what if the cage is way more threatening than the pole, and the enforcers of righteousness are themselves corrupt? Hypocritical puritans in politics? Ring a bell anyone, in the relentless right-ward drift of the times?
The characters have their moments, but they’re all morally ambiguous. You can call Measure For Measure a ‘problem comedy’: the biggest problem might be the queasy open-ended finale that McAlear takes in hand and reinvents.
Really, Measure For Measure is not an easy play to like. Maybe that’s why Freewill has never staged it before (it’s a gutsy choice for this cast of veterans and newcomers). But, as McAlear’s production demonstrates, it is a play to get caught up in — absorbing in its densely worded, intricate arguments about justice and morality, leadership, order and liberty, the political system and the church.
In the licentious chaos into which the city has fallen, the Duke (Michael Peng), who’s been a lenient ruler, opts to leave town. And he transfers authority for enforcing disregarded laws to his deputy Angelo (Vincent Forcier), a rigidly upright, cold-eyed moralist whose “blood is very snow-broth.” Then the Duke sticks around, in a monk’s disguise. And you don’t ever quite know why, except that the mystery monk sets in motion a variety of plot devices, like the old bed switcheroo, that lighten the tragic colours.
The Duke doesn’t have the cajones to do his own dirty work? He’s got a case of workplace burnout, and needs some ‘me time’? He already suspects Angelo of not being the moral purist he claims to be? Or maybe he wants to spy on his home town to suss out the political climate?
In McAlear’s production, Peng’s intriguing performance, full of silences, hesitations and question marks, suggests a character thinking on his feet, looking for tentative answers to a mystery that might be … himself. Either that, or the Duke has been in therapy too long — it is Vienna after all, the good doctor Freud’s home town.
Anyhow, the crux of the plot is that in the new puritan climate, a young man Claudio (Yassine El Fassi El Fihri) has been sentenced to death for knocking up his fiancée Juliet (Dayna Lee Hoffman). And Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella (Priya Narine), a nun-in-progress, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life.
That’s when Angelo, poster boy for probity, finds himself attracted to Isabella and makes a fateful proposition: her brother’s life for her virginity. She’s horrified, and refuses the offer: “more than our brother is our chastity.” Which is an austere line to take, as poor Claudio argues when he changes his mind in a great jail scene between brother and sister. “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where, to lie in cold obstruction and to rot….”
What gives Measure for Measure its disturbing twilight ambiguity is that no point of view can be dismissed outright — all get some heft, in densely worded confrontations or, especially in the case of Angelo, soliloquies. And McAlear’s cast really dig in. In the meaty role of Angelo, the bureaucrat in the conservative brown suit who’s more tempted by resistance than by easy vice as he’s shocked to realize, Forcier conveys an unwelcome sense of discovery. Angelo’s gradual resort to threats is scarily plausible. “Say what you will. My false outweighs your truth.”
Isabella is one of the most challenging “heroines” in the canon, as the quotation marks suggest. She can seem awfully fierce and unappealing. But in her persuasive performance, newcomer Narine mounts Isabella’s arguments to Angelo for mercy with real eloquence: “it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant….”
As for the comedy in Measure For Measure, the urban demi-monde, fractious and licentious (costumed zestfully by Alison Yanota), is where it’s at, starring a rancid and amusing triumvirate: Brett Dahl as a sassy, dissolute man-about-town, Ian Leung as a smart-mouth worldly pimp, Nadien Chu as the cackling proprietor of a “house of resort” in the ‘burbs. Thanks to the dimbulb Constable Elbow (Troy O’Donnell), a repository of malapropisms, law enforcement is incomprehensible buffoonery.
And Aaron Macri’s score, which veers between an ominous industrial buzz and thundering party rock, captures a crucial feature of the whole enterprise.
To say that the ending of Measure For Measure is weird is something of an understatement. McAlear’s production goes to some pains to solve the problem that, after many convolutions, Isabella ricochets from one indecent proposition to another, even more bizarre, from the Duke himself, in and out of disguise. She, along with pretty much everyone onstage, is thunderstruck. In this version, we’ll see the women, all of them wronged in one way or another in the course of the play, moved to bond.
The reinvented ending solves one problem and leaves another: the Duke himself. As the play closes he tortures everyone by insisting at sadistic length, as both a faux monk and himself, that Claudio has been executed although he hasn’t, and threatening many people, including the kindly jailer (Sarah Gale), with jail time. On preview night Wednesday, a formation of cynical gulls crossed the sky just then, squawking with laughter.
Peng’s performance, full of subtlety and nuance, has made a good case for the Duke as a conflicted authority figure. But the more he’s in charge, the more manipulative he gets. Maybe the contradictions of the play, as it explores abuses of male power at every level, are exactly what makes it relevant. In any case, it’s a fascinating and welcome chance to catch a rarely seen Shakespeare play in the great outdoors.
And since the city plans to shut the entire park for three years, a stunning lack of civic creativity, see Freewill at their creative work while you can.
Measure For Measure
Freewill Shakespeare Festival 2022
Written by: you know who
Directed by: Nancy McAlear
Starring: Priya Narine, Vincent Forcier, Michael Peng, Yassine El Fassi El Fihri, Ruth Alexander, Ian Leung, Nadien Chu, Brett Dahl, Kijo Eunice Gatama, Moses Kouyate, Troy O’Donnell, Meegan Sweet, Dean Stockdale, Dayna Lea Hoffman, Sarah Gale.
Running: through July 10, odd dates and July 10 matinée, alternating with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even dates and most matinée.s
Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park
Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com or at the gate