For a play that is so rarely seen, William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure carries a lot of baggage. No one quite knows what to make of it. English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge trashed it as "hateful." Shakespearean scholar Sir Edmund Chambers labeled it "bitter." Even the genial American poet Mark Van Doren, who had something positive to say about all of Shakespeare's plays, complained that Measure for Measure is "unsatisfactory." Yet the current production at Washington University is none of the above. To the contrary, it provides an arresting, engaging and even provocative evening of theater.
The plot might have been torn out of today's tabloid headlines. Measure for Measure tells a tale of politics and lust. The Bard would have us believe that in the year 1600 the Viennese had lost all sense of morality. Vienna stinks of vice; pimps and prostitutes run free, and goodness can only be found within convent walls. The randy Claudio (Lee Osorio) has impregnated his betrothed before officially marrying her. (For this plot line Shakespeare drew on his own experience. We don't know much about Will, but we do know that his first daughter was born six months after the wedding.)
Claudio has been arrested for moral turpitude. Angelo (Kelly Riley), the acting duke who is so austere and self-righteous he makes Oliver Cromwell look like a playboy, decides to make an example of Claudio by executing him. Claudio's sister Isabella (Rosie Mandel), a novice at a local convent, rushes to Angelo to plead for her brother's life. The puritanical Angelo hears her out, then arrives at a novel compromise: He will spare Claudio's life if Isabella will sleep with him.
The play is only just picking up speed, and already Shakespeare has touched on fascinating and relevant themes: the nature of justice, the abuse of power, political hypocrisy. When Isabella cajoles Angelo, "It is excellent to have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant," she might be quoting the latest Frank Rich column. But Angelo is prepared to use the weight of his authority to crush Isabella, if necessary. "Say what you can," he chides when she threatens to reveal his blackmail, "my false o'erweighs your true." Whistleblowers, beware.
Then there are the sexual issues. For Angelo, which is worse: desire or guilt? For Isabella, how is sin to be defined? Should this would-be bride of Christ listen to her own heart? Or should she find solace in Bassanio's pleading to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, which preceded Measure for Measure by many years but whose plot is not dissimilar: "To do a great right, do a little wrong." Ladies, how would you respond in this situation? And men, how would you have your sisters behave if your life was on the line?
This is compelling stuff, and all the more so because it is being staged in the intimate A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre. It's quite possible that if this same production transferred to the larger Edison, it would fall flat. But as directed by Annamaria Pileggi in the center of the Hotchner, with the audience on either side of the stage and everyone close to the action, there's an almost conspiratorial sense to the evening. The actors are not required to declaim. They're talking about personal things here, and these characters are allowed to become people. Pileggi also makes the most of the ample humor (which, again, does not have to be overplayed) to help offset the more intense moments.
So what's wrong with this play? For one thing, it lacks the great lines that we can latch on to. Much of the writing seems derivative. Whole speeches sound borrowed from earlier plays like The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. The primary clown is a direct steal from Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. So yes, perhaps Measure for Measure can be labeled as lesser Shakespeare. But after an unending onslaught of Midsummer Night's Dreams, the very freshness of lesser Shakespeare is highly appealing.