A “Measure for Measure” for good listeners

It was early in the morning on a Saturday, and I was already on a city bus making my way to the Newberry Library for a staged reading of Measure for Measure, wishing the bus to skip a few stops so I could make the 10:00 am call. I had given up on trying to make the pre-show commentary. I was worried that my tardiness would be expressly noted by what would no doubt be a minuscule and rather homogenous audience of aging purists. To my surprise, not only did I make it on time, but the room was packed, lively, and I wasn’t the only one in attendance under thirty.

I should have known this might be the case: the Shakespeare Project of Chicago (SPC) has had fifteen years to garner a dedicated and variable following–deservedly so based on the merits of this production. In the post-show discussion, Nathan Hosner (Angelo) made a nice comment encapsulating the interpretation of this late Shakespeare comedy: “this is really Shakespeare sticking a fork in comedy.” The playtext does seem to suggest Shakespeare turning over comedic conventions, and pushing some of the tried-and-true tricks of the trade to their limits. One example is the not one but two bed tricks. The first is obvious: Mariana (Michelle Shupe), Angelo’s true wife, stands in to sleep with her husband although he thinks it is the would-be-nun, Isabella (Gail Rastorfer). The second is a grotesque version of the previous traditional bed trick: in order to save Isabella’s brother Claudio (Sean Cooper) from death, the Provost (Dan Rodden) has another prisoner’s head cut off and sent to Angelo as proof of Claudio’s death.

These exchanges point up issues of value: Whose life is more important than another? How do we determine individual worth, and on what scale? That these bed tricks take place off stage and are a matter of implication by the text itself aided the production by suggesting a greater sense of space without necessitating props, not even a bed. As to the staging itself, the group used a large room on the first floor of the library often used for talks and conferences; it has no permanent elements except for support columns throughout the space. Aside from the provided chairs and a basic dais for the performers, there was nothing else of material note. (One could watch the production, or turn around and watch the other actors mill around and wait for cues, an interesting exposure of back-stage life.)

The trade off in the lack of costumes, set, or props enabled the use of prompt books throughout the production, i.e. staged reading. This allowed for very close attention to textual interpretation. The actors did not sit around a table but in fact performed, taking their entrances and exits and so forth but maintaining an emphasis on the words themselves. It is rare that a playgoer today feels more like a true audience member (where listening to the poetry is the primary function) rather than a spectator (with its primacy of the visual). This directorial emphasis not only makes the SPC’s productions infinitely malleable to performances spaces, but are a really good opportunity to practice our underdeveloped and undervalued critical listening skills.

In terms of performance, Angelo and Isabella were especially strong, both developing a nice interior life for their characters fully supported by an experienced and tempered ensemble. Only Claudio was unconvincing in his sense of mortality and encounter with the gravity of death. Isabella was clearly centered as the main protagonist in this rendition, set on a crucible that emphasizes the problematic ending that has made the play so interesting to modern feminist scholars: having escaped being forced to sleep with Angelo, Isabella is cleverly manhandled by the Duke Vincentio (Stephen Spencer) into marrying him instead of returning to holy orders. Director Peter Garino explained this as a moment of acquiescence rather than force, stating that Vincentio’s proposal implies that he is humbled by Isabella’s development into a woman throughout the course of events, having passed every test he sneakily set for her.

Garino’s direction led to a nicely complex rending of an intentionally problematic conclusion (as suggested by the play’s title), but in the talk-back dramaturge Michelle Shupe contradicted this scope of the production. She bluntly stated that early moderns would not have been so keen to understand the problematic tension of Isabella being taken by the duke, that it would have seemed a natural course of events for a comedy. Such a claim seemed to undercut their thoughtfully-wrought rendition, and if we consider the influence of audience reception and seventeenth-century theatre as a consumer-driven industry, this claim is wholly inaccurate.

If the infrastructure of SPC has a fault, it is also it strength: while the company is entirely self-sustaining and stripped-down, this also necessitates a reliance on company members to do some of the extra-production research and work that may at times fall short. In this case it did not seem to affect the production in a major way. Aside from this albeit technicality of interpretation, Measure for Measure is a strong reading of a complex Shakespeare play that I highly recommend to those interested in Shakespeare’s poetic language as much as the spectacle of it.

  • The Shakespeare Project of Chicago‘s production of Measure for Measure plays twice more–October 16 at 2pm at the Wilmette Public Library and October 24 at 2pm at the Highland Park Public Library.
  • Note these productions are free and open to the public.

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