Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is one of his rarely done ‘problem plays’ because it is on dual comedy and tragedy scenarios that confounded audiences and directors for centuries. Untangling its complexities with distinction is the stellar ensemble cast of director Charles McMahon inspired production at the Lantern Theater in Philadelphia. McMahon and assistant director David Bardeen skillfully bust it open as the prototype tragicomedy it was meant to be.
Set in Vienna’s courts, abbeys, brothels and taverns, the plays colliding themes of religious and political hypocrisies, corruption, lust, betrayal, lying, sexual harassment all playing out in Shakespearean high drama and louche farce.
Under new draconian laws, Vienna police are not only closing the whorehouses but cracking down on unblessed ‘fornications.’ Claudio, a young gentleman, unmarried to his beloved, Juliet, who is pregnant by him. He is charged with criminal fornication as an example for others and now sentenced to death by beheading on the orders of Angelo, arrogant deputy to DukeVincentio. Convent novitiate Isabelle, Claudio’s sister, appears in Angelo’s chambers to plead for her brother’s life. She almost convinces him to be merciful. But the deputy is overcome by an uncontrolable lust for Isabella (despite or because of her nun’s garments, no?); anyway, he is so repulsed that he becomes even more brutal wielding his power, telling her he will pardon her brother if Angelo demands “You give me love.”
Isabella defiantly asks “What man art thou?” and threatens to expose him and he spits back “Who will believe thee, Isabelle?”
Meanwhile, as the brothels are being raided, all of the forces around the Duke, vie for his favor through this situation, of course, the new rules don’t apply to the rich and powerful (sound familiar).
Shakespeare’s bawdy talk about sexual proclivities of the rabble and the aristocrats is truly inspired and certainly resonates today. McMahon and Bardeen use these scenes for broad comedy. Whatever may be ambiguous as deliberate comedic content might be immediately cued by some wild costume designs by Janus Stefanowicz. This ensemble also brings so much clarity with physical comedy, accents, quick costume changes in multiple ensemble roles.
The comedy mask is led by the unctuous nasality of Jared McLenigan’s Lucio, who is so animated as an operative of both the carnal houses and the halls of ‘justice’ (sound familiar). The tragic led by the woeful Isabella, a woman whose efforts to free her brother, fall on deaf ears as her story of being sexually harassed is not believed and publicly discredited (you take it).
An equally gamey physical comedian is Adam Hammet’s delectable performance as the louche cockney Pompey Bum. Note that we may be in Vienna, but all the players showcase slate of English dialects. Bum is in the brig for possessing what is hinted at as being former contents of a codpiece, he can only save himself if he agrees to assist the axman in Claudio’s execution. As he tours the jailhouse he points out his former clients in the whorehouses, identified by their sexual kinks, with punched up dialogue penned by McMahon and Bardeen.
Anthony Lawton as the all-seeing Duke Vincentio adds to the confusion because he poses as one of the clerics brokering the negotiations between jailors, Isabella, and the Escalus. He is thunderous as Lear as the Duke and is the wry whispering creeper hiding in his Friar robe .
Claire Inie-Richards is the soul of this play and one of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines, a religious version of Bardian virtue. Like Henry V, Isabella faces the enemy, weighs the sacrifice of her body and her soul, contemplates the souls of her brothers and even Angelo, as she looks skyward questioning God’s council. Richards gives an electrifying performance, her operatic dialogue ringing true in every line. Equally powerful in the play’s other most challenging dramatic role is Ben Dibble’s volcanic performance as Angelo.
These are powerful and completely engaging performances in themselves, but director Charles McMahon continues orchestrates ensemble playing at its best. Kirk Wendell Brown’s sly Escalus who strategically veils his suspicions with officialdom. Chris Anthony’s condemned Claudio is on the sidelines for most of Act I, but in Act II, he makes the most of Claudio’s understated soliloquy about facing death with no regrets. Charlotte Northeast pulls off the most impressive theatrical prestidigitation in five different roles as Mistress Overdone, the Madame with the goods on everybody, a nun, a constable and exiled wife of Angelo.
McMahon’s masterful direction in complete service to every dimension of this script, sharp focusing some of the comedy with stylized riffs that plays it as it theatrical lays measure by tragicomic measure.