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Measure For Measure

Last night, before the Snowpocalypse started, but not before the panic, we got on the subway with a lot of other prophylactically bundled-up and snow-booted people and went to see Measure for Measure at the Duke theatre.

But first, a New York anecdote.

I was standing in the 12 items or under line at Fairway (and had been for 15 minutes) when a young woman flashed a card at me and said, "I'm from the New York Post.  Are you here shopping for the storm?"

I looked at her for a beat, WTF, and said, "I lived in Massachusetts for 30 years.  Snow doesn't frighten me.  What's a foot?  Nothing."  At which she looked at me WTF and passed on to the old lady behind, who had a wheelie cart full of cans and veggies, and of course she is afraid of snow and should be, because for her it's a broken hip waiting to happen.  But most of the people clogging Fairway like I've never seen, not even the day before Thanksgiving?  Get over it, people.  This is NYC, not Saskatchewan.

Anyway.  Measure for Measure.  Coleridge hated it:  "The comic and tragic parts equally border on the [hateful]--the one being disgusting, the other horrible."  Chambers speaks of how the Duke tortures Isabel, Hazlitt announces that Shakespeare was the least moral of all writers because he showed himself to be in sympathy with all the characters except the stern moralist Antonio.  And nobody knows what to make of Isabella.  I've seen it three times now, and I have yet to see a truly satisfying Isabella.

Didn't see one last night, either, although Elisabeth Waterston certainly did her best.  She came down somewhere between a cold fish and a woman whose passions were all in her head, which is a fair enough reading of the part.  If only her voice were more flexible (she tends towards monotone, even when she's being impassioned) and she weren't quite so skinny.  It could have made her vulnerable and ascetic, but she kept smoothing her incredibly long hands over her incredibly tiny abdomen (I swear she's got a canopic jar in her dressing room), and it was just distracting.  I do have to say, though, that her WTF face when the Duke proposed to her at the end was perfectly priceless and utterly justified.

Despite the fact that nobody was absolutely solid on their lines (the play is still in previews), the rest of the performances were awesome.  It was a modern-dress production, which meant that the men came off better than the women, but since it's a man's play, that actually worked for me.  The Duke was a kind of charming monster, gleefully playing with people's lives from motives that sounded good, but were not based on any real knowledge of or sympathy with actual human nature.  The way he forced Isabella to forgive Angelo was supposed to teach her Christian charity.  He was clearly enchanted with his own cleverness, and didn't see that the lesson humiliated her as well, and couldn't understand why she didn't fall into his arms when he went down on his knee to her.  Jefferson Mays played the Duke.  I haven't seen his act before, but I hope I see him act again.

Ditto Rocco Sisto, whose Angelo was absolutely pitch-perfect.  He was tall, he was grey-haired, he had lips you could post a letter through, he moved as though his underwear were double-starched.  He knew what was right and what was wrong and had been suppressing his emotions for so long that he didn't know what to do with them when they escaped their prison.  He didn't play Angelo as a villain--he played him as a tragic hero, which is (formally, anyway) what he is.  And I was almost sorry (as I am when I read the play) that he wasn't allowed to die at the end, the victim of his own humanity and hubris, like Tamburlaine.  But Shakespeare makes him live with himself and the consequences of his human weakness (not hypocrisy--the Duke is hypocritical when he plays bawd to Mariana, but Angelo knows exactly what he's doing).  Gotta feel sorry for Mariana, though.

Clearly, I could witter on about this play for screens and screens.  I will content myself, however, with saying that this production is intelligent and thoughtful, that the director Arin Arbus has really thought about its patterns and psychologies, and it really moves along.  The clowns were genuinely funny--I was particularly fond of John Keating as a wild-haired and very Irish Pompey.  And everybody's going to get more comfortable with both staging and lines as the run goes on.  It's not perfect--Measure for Measure is a problem play, after all--but it's damn good for all that.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 10th, 2010 05:25 pm (UTC)
I love Measure for Measure. It's my favorite. I like it best BECAUSE it is ambiguous. Can't quite label it, you know? I saw it in the Cambridge Gardens one summer, and Angelo was bald and priestly and tormented by his sudden, panicked desire, and Isabella was an icy saint who, if she could have cared for anyone (on ANY human level) would have cared for Angelo. Better than her brother, better than the Duke. They were alike. "Go to your heart, knock there." The Duke was a chubby, lecherous, manipulative bastard. I always wanted to play EITHER Angelo or Isabella -- what fun it would be!

Wish I could've seen this one. I'd eat Shakespeare for breakfast if I could.
Feb. 10th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
Me, too. There's no such thing as Too Much Shakespeare. Like duck, which I can eat for many meals a day for quite a long time without getting tired of it.
Feb. 10th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
I think productions focusing the ending on the fact that the Duke does not make things all right with Isabella, even if he thinks he does, are the done thing now. I once saw one in which Isabella's response to the proposal was to turn wordlessly and stalk off the stage.

So you start out by saying that you're going to see Measure and then say "Coleridge hated it." For a moment I almost thought that was his review of this production. Shucks.
Feb. 10th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
Hahaha, that reporter story is killing me, I love you for being all hardcore New England at her!
Feb. 10th, 2010 11:34 pm (UTC)
Couldn't help myself. And here I was thinking myself the Compleat New Yorker. I guess 35 years in Boston was bound to leave its mark.
Feb. 10th, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC)
I had a soft spot for Measure for Measure because her name was my name...it was probably the first "Tales from Shakespeare" I read when my father gave me that book. (I was involved in an after-school Shakespeare club 5th-7th grades or something like that. One play per year.) It's a toughie and the themes were way over my head back then. But like Ruddigore, I still have that soft spot for it.

Feb. 10th, 2010 11:38 pm (UTC)
Same reason I loved "King Lear" at far too early an age, and kept on loving it even after writing my undergrad thesis on it. If somebody hadn't written a book on the comic structure of "Lear" in 1980, I would have written my dissertation on it too. Little did my mother know what she wrought when she named me Cordelia.
Feb. 10th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
Get over it, people. This is NYC, not Saskatchewan.

* snort * I hear they're even worse about snow over in England, where an inch falls and they close the airports.

How, if I might ask, would you define a man's play and a woman's play?
Feb. 10th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
That requires a long and thoughtful post which I don't have time to write just now--although I do have opinions on the subject.

Short version: boy plays don't allow women moral agency; girl plays don't allow men moral agency. Plays written by playwrites who allow characters of both genders full agency are writing about men and women, even if there is a gender imbalance in the dramatis personae.
Feb. 10th, 2010 09:26 pm (UTC)
I am much fonder of this play than I should be, and I really appreciated this review. I think I like it because the Duke seems so much like a rather hapless writer whose characters have come to life on him, and not in a good way, and he's not up to the challenge.

I saw the Scottish play last night. I'd rather have seen Measure for Measure.

Feb. 10th, 2010 11:46 pm (UTC)
I wrote about it in my thesis in college (the Scottish play, this is), and have an affection for it that passeth understanding--Ellen's understanding, anyway. After attending 3 Scottish plays in the past 5 years, she has announced that I'm on my own from now on.

We both adore the version in Slings and Arrows, though. I bet I could get her to go see that one.
Feb. 11th, 2010 06:13 am (UTC)
He didn't play Angelo as a villain--he played him as a tragic hero, which is (formally, anyway) what he is.

I saw a production I liked very much at the Publick Theatre in Boston when I was in high school; I remember that having never read the play before, it struck me as an elaborated version of "Anathea." Theirs was a young Angelo, also played straight: his prudish distaste for the casual fornication of the rest of Vienna came across as genuinely as his instant and bewildering attraction to Isabella, so that it seemed almost as surprising to Angelo as to the audience that he made his proposition to her at all, yet he not only stuck to it, but then promptly made the situation worse; having apparently never had to test himself against the principles he went around preaching, he had just catastrophically failed his morality save and was now going to keep spinning until something stopped him, in this case Mariana. He kept a fingernail hold on his composure all through his confrontation by the Duke, even to "the very block / Where Claudio stoop'd to death," but he collapsed onto the steps with his head in his hands when Mariana began to plead for his life. (And this reading may or may not be supported by the text, but one was given the sense that she had volunteered the plan of substituting for Isabella, which I found fascinating: she wasn't just a chesspiece of his undoing; she still wanted him, fucked-up and faithless as he was.) I don't recall anything about how the Duke was played, but there you go. Problem play.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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