There’s no disputing Shakespeare’s greatness as a playwright: His 38 surviving theatrical works are repeatedly staged. (With a production of Two Noble Kinsmen in its 20th season next year, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company will complete the entire canon, a feat accomplished by just five theaters in the United States.) However, that doesn’t mean each of Shakespeare’s plays is a masterpiece: Such is the case with the “problem comedy” of Measure for Measure, a thorny tale of hypocrisy and immorality currently offered by CSC — for the first time in 18 years.
Director Brian Isaac Phillips has set his production in a more familiar period, the U.S. in the 1920s, when Prohibition held sway. It’s a good match to Jacobean London (although the setting is given as London, it’s really reflective of Shakespeare’s time and place) and, thanks to Heidi Jo Scheimer’s period-perfect Roaring ’20s costumes, we are given visual insight into the characters — from puritanical tyrants in three-piece business suits to loose men in fur coats and lowlife women as flappers.
Brent Vimtrup (whose earlier powerful performance as the weak-willed Richard II was impressive) is strict and stringent Angelo, deputized to rule Vienna during the absence of Duke Vincentio (Nick Rose). Angelo’s harsh morality leads him to condemn Claudio (Ian Bond), whose fiancée has become pregnant before their wedding. When Isabella (Kelly Mengelkoch), Claudio’s chaste sister about to enter a convent, pleads his case, Angelo yields to his libido and propositions her, offering to free her brother if she will sleep with him. Although Shakespeare’s crafting of Isabella makes her cold and often prudish — she frets that the convent will not be strict enough to suit her — Mengelkoch convincingly and sympathetically balances Isabella’s dilemma of decision between her virtue and her love for her brother.
Rose’s Duke is the catalyst to solve the injustice. Vincentio actually remains in town, hanging out disguised as a friar, giving him insight into Angelo’s vile behavior and in a position to manipulate events to a satisfactory ending. Because this tale is structured as a comedy, things do work out — although various aspects of the resolution, especially several “arranged” marriages, will leave modern audiences scratching their heads. But moral standards were different in 1604 when Measure for Measure was written, and as the title implies, the tale has a delicate symmetrical balance — not necessarily either satisfying or sensible from our 21st-century perspective.
Rose, a CSC veteran (he’s one of three actors who founded the company), offers a nuanced portrait of the Duke, first as an observer then as the puppet master restoring order. Phillips has Rose play Vincentio as dallying in a gay relationship at the show’s outset, which makes his offer to Isabella at the conclusion all the more inscrutable, but it’s left unresolved, allowing members of the audience to interpret as they see fit.
While this seems like strange proceedings for a comedy, there’s plenty of humor in this production. We first see Angelo in action presiding over a court proceeding involving the pimp Pompey (Paul Riopelle) and Mistress Overdone (Miranda McGee), who runs a brothel. He grows frustrated with a foolish, self-important constable named Elbow (Travis Emery) whose command of the language generates more confusion than it solves. Angelo grows so frustrated with Pompey’s double-talk and Elbow’s malapropisms that he hands matters over to his sensible brother Escalus (Jim Hopkins) to sort things out.
Even more amusing is the role of Lucio, described by Shakespeare as “a fantastic,” in other words a fellow who idles his time in eccentric foolishness. Billy Chace handles this role with verbal aplomb: Lucio tries to run interference for the condemned Claudio, typically making matters worse by his flippant attitude. Along the way, he repeatedly insults the Duke when he’s disguised as a friar, leading to more humor when Vincentio’s true identity is revealed. Chace’s Lucio is Measure for Measure’s fool (in the vein of better known perpetrators of impertinence and wit in Shakespeare’s works such as Twelfth Night and King Lear), and he wrings every possible drop of humor from the role.
If it seems that Measure for Measure is a strange brew of drama and comedy, that’s because it is. Isabella is more virtuous than sympathetic, her brother too shallow to feel much compassion for; Angelo is a villain without much rationale, and Vincentio’s motives are murky. That being said, CSC’s Measure for Measure is coherently presented and frequently entertaining, a fine opportunity to see a seldom-produced work by Shakespeare.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through May 26.