“Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true,” thunders Angelo (Brian A. Cami ’19), deputy to the Duke of Vienna, in one of the many moments of “Measure for Measure” that remains darkly pertinent centuries after the Shakespeare play was first performed. In Hyperion Shakespeare Company’s production, running April 8 to 16 at the Loeb Experimental Theater, Angelo wears a business suit; the target of his sinister sexual advances, Isabella (Eliza B. Mantz ’18), dons a similarly contemporary costume; and their meeting takes place in a modern office, lit like a film noir. This setting, along with striking performances and suspenseful lighting and set design, weaponize Shakespeare’s complex text into a razor-sharp criticism of the startlingly familiar power structures that enable sexual violence.
Critics usually classify “Measure for Measure” as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Its tone veers wildly from political drama to slapstick farce, sometimes in the same scene, as it follows one of the Bard’s most convoluted plots. Put simply, after years of not enforcing Vienna’s vice laws, Duke Vincentio (Patrick J. Witt, a second-year Harvard Law student) leaves the government in Angelo’s hands, believing he will be better able to crack down on the city’s debauchery, and goes undercover as a friar. Angelo begins sentencing fornicators like Claudio (Ben I. Ubiñas ’19) to death. Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, pleads with Angelo to pardon him. When he agrees on the condition that Isabella have sex with him, the disguised Duke, Isabella, and Angelo’s former betrothed, Mariana (Allegra C. Caldera ’17), conspire to restore justice to Vienna.
The cast fully capture the richness of Shakespeare’s characters. Cami and Mantz, in particular, act with remarkable emotional depth. As the play progresses, Mantz develops Isabella’s reaction from the shock and agony she initially experiences at the grave choice she faces into resolve and righteous fury. Witt plays the Duke-friar like a detective, appropriate given the show’s film noir visuals, and delivers lines in his paper-thin disguise (think Clark Kent) with a winking seriousness that neutralizes the absurdity of that plot point. The comic actors, especially Jamie P. Herring ’18 as a pimp named Pompey Bum, supply the humor woven into the largely serious show, eminently enjoyable performing both wordplay and slapstick.
Working within the relatively small space of the Loeb Experimental Theater, lighting designer Michaela J. Kane ’18 and scenic designer Eloise M. Wheeler ’17 have created an aesthetically gorgeous and inventive play. Kane’s warm, shadow-heavy lighting accentuates the play’s innate cynicism. The action alternates between four levels of the stage—Angelo’s office; a jail cell; a flexible exterior space; and, once, a balcony—and each scene stays within these spaces, an effective method of both varying the visuals and avoiding time-wasting scene changes that allows for quick, nearly film-like transitions to heighten the urgency.
But the chief success of this update is its antagonist. In his suit and intercom-equipped office, Cami is an instantly recognizable presence—the fresh-faced, crusading politician with an awful darkness just under his moralizing exterior. Cami and director Mikhaila R. Fogel ’16 build an Angelo terrified and sickened by his own depravity even as he rationalizes it, a suitably complex villain for the landscape of sexual violence. As his character’s position shifts from modest deputy to businesslike executive, from predator on a power trip to pariah in disgrace, Cami plays each role with the same captivating underlying psychology, giving the play another thrilling arc: a study of how power affects the powerful as well as the powerless.
With this renewed focus on the role of hierarchy in sexual violence, “Measure for Measure” acquits itself an exceptionally apt selection for Hyperion, and Fogel’s choice of a modern setting proves similarly shrewd. Happily, the staff and cast execute this vision in both technically successful and thematically fitting ways. As a work of theater and as social commentary, “Measure for Measure” exemplifies the enduring brilliance, insight, and relevance of Shakespeare.
—Staff writer Trevor J. Levin can be reached at email@example.com.