Provosts and prohibitions in WYW’s “Measure for Measure”

the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur
— Claudio, Measure for Measure I.ii

Angela Nostwick’s staging of Measure for Measure takes place during the Prohibition era of 1920s America. This maps nicely will the opening conflict of the play, wherein brothels, having expanded beyond the Viennese Duke’s (Monty Joyce) willingness to entertain them, will “all our houses of resort in the suburbs be pulled down.” Rather than downplaying the initial political problem of the play, as is the norm for stagings of Measure, the What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) puts it front and center. By choosing to transgender Pompey (Samantha Fuchs), this adaptation gives us two models of femininity, to poles of female sexuality between which the play vacillates. The first are the two bawds, Mistress Overdone (Katherine Quinn) and Pompey (sometimes Thomas the Tapster), and then the two virgins, Isabella (Emaline Johnson) and Mariana (Maggie Wolfe)—and both rendered to equal extremes.

I feel that Prohibition is a productive framing period when you want to underscore the institutionalized mechanisms for policing social norms. To make this point, WYW has added an extra dance scene—well, strip tease really—by Mistress Overdone and Pompey, who get down to their skivvies (and nearly lose it all) before being arrested by Elbow (Celia Mueller). While it certainly does the work of making explicit the interest in policing of both female sexuality and homosexuality, this scene and the costuming felt to me walking that line between useful and exhibitionistic for exhibition sake. Had the costumes been of the period, something gesturing at the flapper dress that asked us to recalibrate our sense of scanty and decorous in the way that the play suggests, their sexuality and playfulness would have had more resonance. Certainly it wouldn’t have been dependent on 2015 standards of indecency, but grounded in the period it would have highlighted the fact that these norms slide and evolve over time, with time. That throughout the play Pompey and Mistress Overdone strain against various captors in order to return to one another gives the couple a sense of tenderness, but (at least for me) it was not enough to balance the skin factor.

Volts’ “Ladies on a terrasse.” Paris, 1920s.

What does help is the fact that women are constantly under assault by the male gaze and male advances throughout the play to differing degrees—the theme is constant. Lucio (Ashish Valentine) is made a more aggressive prowler than many productions I have seen are willing to commit to, perhaps confused by his description as “a fantastic.” Comparatively, Angelo (Ninos Baba) is actually the least aggressive male in the play. He is also doing the most acting, using the phrases and emphases embedded in the figures of speech to frame his delivery. In it we can hear the gradual evolution of his logic with a pace and realistic gestures to match. I commend anyone who takes on Angelo: like Antony, he is a character that if not dealt with subtlety, if not given gradual degrees to progress to an extremity of emotion or evil, he can feel either (a) very flat, reaching a fever pitch too soon in the action, or (b) go from considered counsellor to a rapacious politician with no sense given to that evolution. In either case, he can come off as illogical when in fact Angelo is a very considered and rationale figure. For example:

Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor. (II.ii)

It’s what makes him so dangerous, what makes our skin crawl when he doesn’t have to act with any force to push Isabella up against a railing or desk; what is terrifying is not the intensity, but the casualness, the sense that it takes no effort to remove agency from her. This Isabella makes a good rebuff to both his physical advances and his logic. The instinct is to react with violence and extremity, to roll around on the prop desk, to smash and clash in a fevered pitch of wit we want from a Beatrice and Benedict. To resist this mirroring and the romantic dovetailing the stichomythia of their shared scenes, is to push back against audiences’ natural inclinations for a comedy, for the union of the couple, for this play to end in marriage. The play does end in at least one marriage, but certainly not one that gives us any of the satisfaction of say Twelfth Night.

Speaking of endings, it must be said that while the troupe had one more dress rehearsal between when I say the production and their opening this Friday, there were several rough patches. For one, the pace is very slow in part I think because of a Duke, in playing two roles, is uncertain of what motivation lies at the center of his part. (And that is certainly a fair question one could ask of the play in general.) While some planned and excessively hard ass-slapping made me cringe, the final fight scene choreography seemed grossly unplanned and haphazard. These technical elements are things easily smoothed by opening night. The challenge seems to be to focus on the issue at hand, the critique of governments and institutions policing sexualities of varrying kinds, rather than the mere exhibition of those sexualities.

In this light it is crucial that the play ends on the threshold of Vienna, at the city gates, on the fringes between socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Certainly these staging choices reflect the new awareness of the micro-agressions of cat-calling, and looks directly to our Indiana neighbors and their new discriminatory legislation against the LGBTQ community. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the two pairs of female sexual identity that brought this to mind for me as a playgoer, but in the subtle coupling of the Provost (Delilah Hansen) and Escalus (Kat Fuenty), men in power but in the closet. They hold hands twice in the course of the play, when everyone else has exited, a silent insertion gesturing to the variety of sexualities in Vienna right under the nose of the Duke and Angelo. Throughout the play they exchange worried, knowing glances as the violence and policing escalate. You realize their lines are the only ones that care about the outcomes of Isabella, Claudio (Jeri Murphy), and even Barnardine (Matthew Freeman) as real people (in the play world at least) rather than their occupations or subject positions. The Provost and Escalus for me represented those good people on the edges and caught in the middle of a debate they don’t want to fight, but have to, because their legislators won’t do it on their behalf. And certainly that is reason enough to spend some of this weekend with Shakespeare and WYW.

The What You Will Shakespeare Company opens season with namesake

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
Twelfth Night III.i.60-1

It has been far too long since I have properly reviewed a What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) production, so it seems fitting to return to the troupe with the play from whence they take their name. As is their usual course, the student-run group made use of an unassuming campus space, the basement of University Place Christian Church, whose architecture cleverly provides the necessaries for early modern staging. There are a number of reasons why I consistently enjoy this particular play, a comedy something tonally akin to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It; I now come to think that one of the reasons for its perennial success, especially at the hands of student thespians, is that it requires little technology. The play is incredibly plastic, requiring nothing but the three entrances (and even potentially making by with just the two, the norm of medieval hall performances) to carry the action.

What I appreciated most about WYW’s performances this weekend was their choice to embrace the stripped-down quality this particular playtext makes available. The costumes were well-wrought yet simple and straightforward, generally suggesting the Renaissance with doublet, hose, and bucklers, but little else. In fact, aside from having at least two boys who could play strong and convincing women, the only special technology the play requires is a costuming one: yellow stockings with garters to cross them. (While I do not know for sure, the simplicity of material performance the playtext suggests I imagine made it particularly plastic in terms of touring, essentially capable of being staged in any environment.) There was little else but chairs and a table, along with Feste’s (Megan Scharlau) ukulele—musical performance the only other special technology the play seems to call for—to adorn the playing space. In such thoughtful and consistent simplicity we are given the literal and cognitive space to let the language do more work.

With this additional linguistic emphasis given the bare-ish stage (whether Shakespeare’s plays were written for or performed on a bare stage is hotly contested), the puppet master of this play turned out to be Feste. There are a number of inventive parts to this play, where the characters have distinct individual voices—another quality that makes it especially useful for undergraduate performance. Typically, the parts of Malvolio (Erik Wessel), Sir Toby Belch (Monty Joyce), Feste and Viola (Tori Stukins) compete for dominance in individual stagings. I’ve yet to see a successful ensemble rendering that effectively gives the parts equal weight to the benefit of a production; I think that a director’s choice of giving preference to a particular part helps to provide the play with ideological coherence, and so don’t mind the privileging. Scharlau adopted the “omniscient fool” posture in a vein similar to Ben Kingsley’s interpretation for the part, overseeing much of the activity and doubling a number of parts noted and not in the text, including the captain of the wrecked ship who first introduces Viola/Cesario to Orsino’s (Tom Fornando) court. Understanding her words, and underscoring their intentional doubleness, the majority of the play’s action and meaning became tied up in her rendering.

When I return to a play that I’ve seen too many times to count, my ears are looking for a line I haven’t heard fully before, one that is glossed over too frequently but in the mouths of these particular actors is imbibed with a meaning I have yet to discover. In this production I got two such moments. First, the simplicity and elegance of Feste’s rendering of the songs, making use of the lower range of her alto voice which allowed the consonants to ring more concretely than a soprano might. Her rendition of Feste’s first song was far sweeter and less plaintive than is usual:

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

In these lyrics I could hear both Orsino and Olivia’s (Kim Gasiciel) longing for “the one,” that Platonic ideal of a romantic other made for them but that they do not see in one another. At the start of the play we have found that the two have adopted different strategies for this longéd longing for a beloved: Orsino basks in love songs and doggedly pursues Olivia, while she gives herself a stricture of abstinence. Both refuse to let the happenstance of love have the upper hand: Orsino constantly pursues it in all the wrong places, while Olivia refuses to let rejection even be an option. Feste’s song quietly encourages the notion of an ideally suited and companionate love but advises giving oneself over to the serendipity and unknowingness of love’s timing in order to be rewarded with such a love.

The second such moment of new hearing was a quotation spoken by Viola (in her disguise as Cesario), telling Orsino a story illustrating the constancy of women in love: “She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief.” It wasn’t until sitting down to write this review that I noticed the passage was included on the cover of the program, presumably emphasizing life’s vacillations between “pleasure and obligation,” according to the director’s note. Unlike Feste’s advice to Orsino, Viola makes a claim that women suffer a kind of small death at the hands of love unrequited, that in their patience, as eternal as a burial monument, women are willing to wait and give over to fate even to destruction. When paired together, the song and quotation inveigh against the wracks of patience in love precisely because it promises equally rewards or devastation when giving over to hope. Shakespeare’s ambivalence towards love is a dark one then, reveling as much in the serendipity of a shipwreck bearing twins, ideal matches for the lords of the land, as in the strings left untied, the broken hearts of Antonio and Malvolio is trying to wrest away Cupid from his arrow. And considering the advice from Feste’s mouth, perhaps the puppet master intended irresolution all the more to make the point.

  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company‘s production of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will plays at the University Place Christian Church 17-18 October at 8:00pm.
  • This fall the troupe will also be mounting productions of Julius Caesar and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Stay tuned for more details!