Theatre Intime Continues Season with “Measure for Measure”; Shakespeare’s Dark Comedy is Juxtaposed Against Current Issues
“MEASURE FOR MEASURE”: Theatre Intime and the Princeton Shakespeare Company has presented “Measure for Measure.” Directed by Naomi Park ‘21, the play ran December 6-8 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Angelo (Colin Vega, right) is briefly, and unwittingly, reunited with his former fiancée, Mariana (Eliana Abraham), in a pivotal scene that contains one of the play’s multiple uses of dual identity. (Photo by Nora Aguilar ’21)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Theatre Intime, whose cast and production team consist of Princeton University students, has continued its season with Measure for Measure. Presented with the Princeton Shakespeare Company, the production has offered a resolutely contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (1603 or 1604), which explores themes that include piety, lust, and hypocrisy.
Although it is classified as a comedy in the 1623 First Folio, Measure for Measure is a “strange mix of comedy and serious topics,” director Naomi Park acknowledges in a program note. “I’ve tried to work through these issues, cutting and mixing up the text. I brought the show into the light of the Me Too Movement, highlighting women’s issues and homophobia.”
“However, it is still far from a perfect play,” Park continues. “I chose, therefore, to use the framing device of a staged reading — reminding you that this is a play, not a thing to take at face value, and not an art piece whose message I fully endorse.”
This framing concept might have been even more organic in a play such as Henry V, whose prologue breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience “gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.” Nevertheless, in Measure for Measure more than one character pretends to be someone else — in other words, plays a role — so it is an apt directorial choice to remind the audience that it is watching a performance.
Notably the use of scripts is varied. In the early scenes, Park has the performers studiously appear to be reading their lines, but later this is more sporadic. Certain key monologues still are performed from memory, even if the actor holds a notebook. This often leads to a marked improvement in the clarity and conviction with which line readings are delivered.
The Duke of Vienna decides to have his deputy, Angelo, rule in his stead. (Signs carried by protestors at the beginning of the play suggest that the Duke is unpopular.) The Duke wishes to appear a benevolent ruler, but he also wants law and order to be strictly enforced. The Duke disguises himself as a friar, to discover the viewpoint of the people.
Zealous in the executing of his duties, Angelo sentences to death Claudio, the sibling of the novitiate Isabella, who is preparing to enter a nunnery. (In the script, Claudio’s crime is impregnating his fiancée, Juliet. In this production Claudio is a woman, so the relationship with Juliet becomes the crime, adding Park’s exploration of homophobia.) Isabella pleads for mercy for Claudio.
Initially Angelo refuses to spare Claudio, but he offers to do so if Isabella will sacrifice her virginity to him. (As a villain, Angelo is not unlike Frollo in Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris, and Scarpia in the Puccini opera Tosca.) Isabella rejects the proposition, and informs Claudio of it. Overhearing the latter conversation, the Duke contrives a plan to help both Claudio and Isabella.
The Duke is aware that Angelo had a fiancée, Mariana, whom he jilted. He convinces Isabella to pretend to accept Angelo’s offer, but to surreptitiously switch with Mariana — a plot device that also is used in All’s Well That Ends Well. Mariana agrees, and the plan works; the veiled Mariana takes Isabella’s place. However, Angelo fails to honor his part of the bargain, deciding to execute Claudio anyway.
The Duke ends his disguise and reclaims his title. Angelo accuses Isabella of lying, but is confronted with his actions when Mariana removes her veil, revealing her identity. In the script Angelo is spared, but in this production he is sentenced to death for his actions. Claudio is revealed to be alive, having been substituted for another condemned prisoner.
Colin Vega’s portrayal of Angelo is exceptionally strong. He lets the character be curtly, almost offhandedly, imperious in public. This is contrasted by the more nuanced, rather agitated delivery of his monologues — highlighting the extent to which Angelo’s public persona and sanctimony are a façade.
Sheherzad Jamal matches this; her impassioned performance infuses Isabella with considerable strength, leaving us with heightened respect for the character’s ability to navigate an unthinkable situation. The final confrontation between Isabella and Angelo is particularly satisfying to watch, thanks to the actors who play them.
Kai Torrens is entertaining as Claudio’s spunky friend Lucio, who is the source of much of the play’s humor. It is amusing to watch the character slander both the Duke and a friar, and be discomfited when he learns they are one and the same.
Eliyana Abraham is adept at delivering a dual performance as Juliet and Mariana. In a gender-bending portrayal of the Duke, Alexis Maze delivers a performance that is distinctly temperate, even understated, in contrast to the intensity of Angelo and Isabella. The cast is capably rounded out by Eliana Cohen-Orth as Claudio; Hank Ingham as Pompey, a pimp; Musab Almajnouni as a Friar; and Travis York as Escalus, the Duke’s advisor.
Issie Hilditch’s set is a triptych, and, in keeping with the play’s somber themes, is painted black. The central (and largest) section appears to be constructed with cement blocks, giving it the appearance of a castle — or a prison cell.
On one side the wall was covered with signs containing slogans such as “Reform Title IX” and “I believe women,” in keeping with Park’s intention to reframe the play in contemporary terms. These signs surround a poster on which is inscribed Isabella’s line, “To whom should I complain?” On the opposite side is a small white crucifix.
Costume designer Natalia Orlovsky echoes Hilditch’s black-and-white color palette, dressing both Isabella and Angelo in those colors. The habit worn by Isabella is complemented by a well tailored suit for Angelo. This is an insightful choice because, although those characters are opposites, Angelo sees himself as equal (or better) to a nun, in terms of piety.
Orlovsky adds color, and supports Park’s contemporary setting, by giving the Duke a blue jacket (which matches a cap for Lucio). Escalus is given a bright red shirt, with which he wears a necktie.
Chamari White-Mink’s lighting effectively uses shadows in the scene in which Mariana trades places with Isabella, heightening the sense of foreboding. The sound design by K. Stiefel provides underscoring that juxtaposes contemporary pop music against monastic chant, nicely illustrating the intrusion of the secular world on the sacred one.
“My false overweighs your true,” Angelo gloats in a key scene. Isabella responds by rhetorically asking, “Who would believe me? O perilous mouths … bidding the law make courtesy to their will.” Park astutely emphasizes a theme of the script that is timeless — indeed, all too relevant: abuse of power, and the improbability of justice for its victims.
Shakespeare’s play is populated by archetypes that populate our world, as well as that of the story: officials who appear benevolent but misuse their position at the cost of the less powerful; cynical protestors who lack the ability to effect real, positive change; and the minority who genuinely are virtuous, and are able to successfully counter oppression. Theatre Intime’s production has been an intriguing, dystopian collage of these archetypes.
For further information about Theatre Intime’s 2019-2020 season, call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.