Long regarded as one of William Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure is officially classified as a comedy, but is ambiguous in combining raucous comic elements with a darker psychological assessment of morality, justice, and mercy.
Director Mike Winkelman's production at Theatre AUM gives the comic elements a boisterous clownish touch that contrasts with the more somber moments; Val Winkelman's costumes that combine modern clothes with suggestions of indeterminate period attire, along with contemporary musical selections, allow audiences to readily connect with subject matter that resonate some 415 years after Measure for Measure was first performed -- topics such as moral hypocrisy, sexual harassment, and the dichotomy between the letter of the law and clemency, that leap off the front pages of our media.
Recognizing he has been lenient in enforcing the law, Duke Vincentio [David Wilson] purports to leave Vienna on a diplomatic trip to Poland, commissioning the strict enforcement of the city's laws to Angelo [Neil David Seibel], a man of untarnished reputation, and second-in-command Escalus [Teri Sweeney]; but unbeknownst to all but one, the Duke will actually stay in Vienna disguised as a Friar to observe what happens in his absence.
In quick order as the townsfolk carouse noisily, Angelo arrests the drunken pimp Pompey [Sam Wallace], closes the brothels much to the dismay of Pompey and Mistress Overdone [Elizabeth Woodworth], and has Claudio [Chris Mascia] arrested for impregnating his espoused wife Juliet [Cathy Ranieri], a capital crime. -- Claudio enlists his friend Lucio [Kodi Robertson] to ask his sister Isabella [Sarah Walker Thornton] to plead to Angelo for mercy.
Isabella is set to become a nun, and is the most morally upright character; she is appalled at Claudio's sin, but she agrees to intervene with Angelo to save her brother's life. And the play turns rather abruptly in tone to a debate wherein both characters have solid arguments: Angelo responds to Isabella's passionate request for a merciful punishment with "It is the law that condemns your brother, not I", insisting on the letter of the law to be enforced...a topic Shakespeare addressed also in The Merchant of Venice, and which has classical connections to the arguments in Sophocles' Antigone.
Angelo knows he has power, and yet, Isabella seems to make him relent a bit. "A virtuous maid subdues me," he says, attracted also by her beauty, before offering leniency for Claudio in exchange for having sex with Isabella. -- When she threatens to tell the world what Angelo proposes, his "unspoiled reputation...austere life...and place in the state" give him the upper hand as he exclaims: "Who would believe thee?" knowing that "My false o'erweighs your truth."
On telling this to Claudio, he begs her to "let me live", but she will not give up her virtue and risk eternal damnation for both herself and Claudio by doing as Angelo wants.
Meanwhile, the Duke still disguised as a Friar has been observing everything, and comes up with a remedy: have Isabella agree to Angelo's demands, but insist their assignation be at night and with no talking; then switch places with Mariana [Brittany Vallely] who was once engaged to Angelo, though the engagement was broken off, and thereby placing Angelo in the same predicament as Claudio under the law against fornication.
All appears to go as planned until Angelo determines to have Claudio executed no matter what and there is a head-substitution plot to save him. -- And the Duke must return to reveal all.
The comic scenes are played with gusto that often interferes with clear communication of words audiences need to hear about plot and character; but they are entertaining. -- And while we might question the Duke's deceptive disguise, Mr. Wilson clears up much of the plotting.
Audience focus is solidly on Angelo and Isabella. As a credit to Mr. Seibel and Ms. Thornton [both Equity actors], neither of their characters can be seen here as completely evil or completely good. Mr. Seibel lends a truthfulness to his initial attraction to Isabella, and a stoical acceptance of his guilt at the end; we understand his letter of the law stance even as it encumbers him. Ms. Thornton's portrayal of Isabella grows in her convictions while she agonizes on the effects her steadfast beliefs; her deliberation on her choices involve audiences to do the same. -- They are the solid center of this production.
As happy endings are conventions of comedies, Measure for Measure satisfies up to a point. There are several marriages on hand, to be sure -- though it is questionable whether any of them will be particularly happy -- and there is some sense of justice tinged with mercy by the end. But so many issues [or "problems"] remain: how to justify the Duke's deceptive behavior and the pain it inflicts on innocent people; the contradictions within the character of Isabella [her steadfast morality countered by her willingness to deceive Angelo]; the imposition of marriage on unwilling partners; and Isabella's silence at the Duke's marriage proposal makes her decision unclear [though in this production's last moment, Isabella is alone on stage and removes her nun's veil].