A Good Measure

Measure for Measure Directed by Peter Stein Through July 12 at the Loeb

MEASURE FOR MEASURE has always been one of the most problematic of Shakespeare's plays. It's kind of mutant tragedy, with fits of claustrophic comedy, in which the outcome is unsettling and the humor discordant. Nineteenth century critics often found the play, with its sense of ad hoc justice and seemingly black core, one of Shakespeare's worst; Coleridge even called it hateful. The twentieth century has looked more kindly at the play (less of a compliment than it seems) seeing in it a vicious and cynical tragi-comedy. Written in the middle of Shakespeare's career, Measure for Measure predates his great tragedies without foreshadowing them, and scholarly gymnastics aside, it simply refuses to fit into any logically imagined progression. It is a difficult play and as such, is often ignored.

All of which makes the Harvard Summer Theatre Ensemble's production a very impressive feat. This performance, the ensemble's first, manages to take Shakespeare's improbable jumble and confront the maze of bleak themes. Yet it still maintains the delicate balance between humor and pathos which Shakespeare himself did not seem to have merged terribly well into the playwrighting.

And it is a jumble, to be sure. Loaded with subterfuge, hidden identities, cloistered maidens, reprobates, fops, split-second marriages, and a Duke ex machina, Measure for Measure is a grabbag of Elizabethan dramatic tricks. Set in Vienna where, in the absence of the Duke, the deputy Angelo is ruling with impeccable stridency, the play is loosely concerned with the fate of the libertine, Claudio, who must pay for an indiscretion with his head in order to serve notice that the law long lax under the Duke, now has new metal in it. As Claudio awaits execution in his jail cell, however, the real plot begins. Claudio's sister, Isabelle, pleads for mercy at the court, only to find herself propositioned by the ruling Angelo, who, hiding behind his reputation, offers Claudio's life in return for her own carnal indulgences.

Though many critics have attempted to find in the play a Christian morality pageant as Isabelle must choose between eternal life and her brother's fate. Shakespeare is working beyond those narrow confines. He focuses instead on Justice in the abstract with all its permutations and elasticity--be it the law of God or of man. Isabelle's refusal to yield to Angelo's desires condemns her brother to death and even in the context of 17th-century Christianity, it comes off as little more than brutality, and Angelo's subsequent breach of his promise, as he orders Claudio's execution, is utterly despicable. Even when the Duke returns in disguise of a friar, and devises an elaborate plan to save Isabelle's honor, spare Claudio's head, and unmask the culprits--his plan is so strangely convoluted--a series of lesser sins to offset greater crimes--that it is barely within the letter, and certainly nowhere near the spirit of the law. The redress of injustice is less than joyful, and certainly less than uncompromised. That this entire ruse is unnecessary, fulfilling only the Duke's own desire for theatrics, gives the play even more of a sour edge. It is the comedy not of the gallows but of the danse macabre: a perverse and unnecessary thing. The Duke takes his charade to such cruel lengths that in the end it seems more heartless than instructive.

CHRISTIAN CLEMENSON plays this Duke with an extraordinary degree of control, and it is here that the production maintains its delicate balancing act. The Duke, a big bear of a man whose own, somewhat cheap, sense of theatrics keeps the play from dissolving completely into schizophrenia, is played with just the right measure of perverse magnanimity. Clemenson has a commanding presence, and plays the part with a nice sense of discord--the Duke seems to have convinced himself that he is only delaying justice; he wanders around with great relish, half-distracted and yet half-taken with his own powers. In a wonderful scene at the play's end, the Duke is unmasked, and Clemenson prances, near-delighted and yet near-manic, too, as he tries to put together his patchwork solution; it is a very fine and subtle performance.

And of course, this deception lies at the heart of the play--for the rest of the characters are, at best, unknown victims of this royal rouse, and hence are not given the luxury of complex reactions. Still, Christopher Randolph's Angelo is suitably cloying--an eloquent and self-righteous man, cold beneath his veneer of law and order. Michael Kaplan pulls off the role of Angelo's wizeneed adviser as well, his role as pillar of the state clear, while still maintaining a healthy sense of amused boredom with the proceedings. The women fare somewhat less well. Shelley Evans's Isabelle is a bit weepy, echoing more of the Bronte sisters than Shakespeare, though the role itself is constantly undermined by the script--her righteous commitment to her virginity seeming vicious at best. Nela Wgman, as Angelo's disheartened betrothed, seems similarly lost in the maze, giving a slightly off-centered performance.

Although the comedy in this play is of a strange sort there is still a wonderful collection of clowns. Pompey (Peter Ginna) is a gangly, very funny fellow, particularly when paired with the troglydite hangman David Van Taylor. Sam Samuels utter perfect obnoxiousness turns the foppish Lucio into a narcissistic climber. And Bill Rauch has a short but memorable cameo as the incompetent officer Elbow.

Still it is slapstick in the face of the abyss and one cannot ignore the callousness Shakespeare rather crudely intended. And it is in this aspect that the production manages to overcome the weaknesses in the play itself. Peter Stein has directed with a great deal of thought; and in some respects, he has presented the show as a series of miniatures complete in themselves, maintaining a flow while allowing each scene with its own vacillating emotions. The elaborate denouement, always the bane of this play, and most often done as some sort of grand processional, is handled masterfully, Stein allowing the Duke's flair to carry the audience along. It is strangely exhilarating, yet maintains a gnawing sense of blackness and futility. The note is sounded, but the emphasis left to the audience.

Set in the Loeb Ex, with a simple and elegant set, Measure for Measure is an intelligent and sensitive production which manages to pull off gracefully what many recent Loeb productions--with their theatrics and special effects-have failed to do.