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.

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.