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Measure for Measure at Cal Shakes (2017) - banner

“ ‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine.
‘I mean,’ I said, ‘men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.’
‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’
Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’
‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

– Margaret Atwood, Writing the Male Character, a Hagey Lecture at the University of Waterloo (9 February 1982)

I’m the sort of person who thinks Shakespeare’s “problem plays” were just proof that he was ahead of his time. He wrote dramatic works at a time when there were only two genres – tragedy and comedy – so the way he often intermingled them suggests (to me, anyway) that he was trying to fight against the idea of anything being binary: morality; gender; or even the (super)natural make-up of the world itself. He saw a world in which nothing is simply black and white.

Of those “problem plays,” Measure for Measure has aged in an interesting way. It’s take on sexual politics combined with its infamously ambiguous ending have only grown in relevance as the centuries have gone by. On the surface, it’s a tale of the corruptive force of absolute power; seen as a whole, it’s a tale of what we now call “male privilege” in its ugliest form, with the hero being a woman who refuses to succumb to it.

And yes, there’s that ending. Neither happy nor sad, it’s presentation has been subject to the interpretation of actors and academics for nearly 400 years. Not even Inception can beat it for the number of debates it’s inspired. It’s as if the bard were giving a middle finger to the very idea of a complex story being wrapped up in one tight little bow, like a song that cuts off abruptly before the final notes. The audience is left to ponder what’s come before and make up the resolution for themselves. And there’s a helluva lot that’s come before.

The Duke of Vienna is missing. It isn’t as if he left without telling anyone, he just left without revealing exactly where he was going. So, as he walks amongst his citizens in the guise of a friar, he leaves control of Vienna in the hands of reputable duo Angelo and Escalus. Though Escalus shows a level of sympathy people, justice under Angelo is swift and final. Such is the case when he orders the execution of the willful Claudio.

When Claudio’s equally willful sister Isabella pleads on his behalf, Angelo promises to stay the hand of justice if Isabella submits to him, body and soul. With the duke missing, Claudio’s execution imminent, and Claudio’s first child due to be born to Juliet, Isabella’s means to have lasting repercussions for her, her brother, and Vienna itself.

There’s a rape scene. Well, technically it’s just an attempted rape, but that’s just bullshit semantics. As directed by Tyne Rafaeli, Angelo’s “proposition” to Isabella includes him forcibly twisting her arm and bending her over his table before stopping himself. When he finishes speaking, he leaves her there for what-feels-like-an-eternity as both she – and, by extension, we the audience – attempt to absorb what’s just happened.

And y’know what’s funny? The scene begins as joke. No, really: the scene starts with Angelo attempting to awkwardly seduce Isabella as D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” plays over his office speakers. She doesn’t go for it and his fragile male ego can’t take it, hence the paragraph above. It’s as if the scene went from Twelfth Night to Titus in a matter of seconds.

It’s a bold choice and a fine example of a director truly understanding the material with which she’s working. Rafaeli knows that Measure for Measure is a story of men convinced that they can control women: Isabella; Juliet; Overdone and the women of the brothel – all of them subject to the whims of impotent men who want to control both them and the world around them. Even Mariana is thought of as a pawn in the game played by the Duke. Oh sure, the Duke is technically in the right, but he still sees Mariana as nothing more than the means to an end. Even Claudio eventually Isabella to submit to Angelo, as Claudio lacks the courage Isabella has in abundance.

Rafaeli masterfully wrangles this schizophrenic story to way an expert cattle-wrangler rides a wild bull, only the director never falls. She finds the natural comedy in the comedic scenes and allows the power of the drama to naturally manifest. And she leaves the ending ambiguous, though one could imagine what she’d like Isabella to do. It’s a talented director showcasing exactly why Shakespeare is still relevant.

The cast is mostly well-served in handling the tricky material. I can’t recall having ever seen Lindsay Rico before, but she expertly showcases Isabella’s strength (and sarcasm). She doesn’t as easily pull off Isabella’s vulnerability, but the turmoil and hurt are palpable in her face when she meets her brother in his cell, as well as the aforementioned Angelo scene.

It’s often said that Tristan Cunningham is one of the Bay Area’s best actors (including by me), but that’s because she continues to live up to that claim. Her turns as the morally conflicted Escalus and the heartbroken Juliet are just more feathers in her cap. Additionally, Patty Gallagher and Annie Worden are clearly having fun in their roles as Provost and Overdone/Mariana, respectively.

The ladies do so well in the production, that it seems oddly appropriate that the men don’t measure up as well (no pun intended). When David Graham Jones’ Angelo isn’t vicious, he seems confused, as does Rowan Vickers’ Duke. They seem to have wandered directly out of a sitcom, which doesn’t really work in the heavier scenes. So too does Kevin Reyes struggle to bring seriousness to Claudio at his most trying times. Adam Schroeder does much better as Lucio – traditionally described as “foppish,” here shown as openly and flamboyantly Gay.

As expected of a Cal Shakes production, the tech side great. At first, I didn’t get the design of Annie Smart’s graffiti-laden palace/nightclub/prison, but its sliding doors and dual levels held multiple secrets as the show went on. It certainly didn’t hurt to have Kent Dorsey’s lights helping out. Brandon Walcott and Josh Schmidt’s sounds perfectly convey the effect of crowds beyond the gates, the pulsing beats of a club, and the cold confines of a prison cell. Montana Blanco’s costumes could easily have become a fascist parody, but instead convey the subtlety of those in power and those considered “commoners”. Well done.

Measure for Measure isn’t an easy show to do. In fact, I’d put it right up there with The Merchant of Venice in how it’s guaranteed to offend someone, no matter what the director’s intentions. Thankfully, Cal Shakes chose a director who made adequate use of the power of the text and viewed it through a contemporary context. The cast may be a bit uneven, but the show overall makes for a fine evening in Orinda.

GRADE:                B

Measure for Measure is scheduled to run until the 8th of October at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.