Just when I thought I couldn’t appreciate the Bard any more, I beheld a clear, beautifully wrought production of Measure for Measure, the other “problem play” in rep at the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park series at Delacorte Theater. (The second time must be the charm for me with this play because this production was the second M4M I’d seen in entirety, and I had to return to the Delacorte a second time to do so. On my first attempt, the show was cancelled about one third of the way through due to rainstorms.)
As with All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure‘s strength and appeal lies in its ambiguity. The play explores grand themes like piety, power, justice, and mercy, using a cast of characters that illustrate the benefits, confines, and shortcomings thereof – with each character embodying all three to varying degrees. For instance, Angelo (played by Michael Hayden), the austere hypocrite who attempts to use his power to seduce the pious Isabella (a stunning performance by Danai Gurira), is willing to accept the harsh punishment of death that he mandated when his deeds are uncovered.
Ultimately achieving her goal to preserve her chastity and her brother’s life, Isabella’s deep faith is rewarded and commendable. When the final decision falls to her, she spares Angelo’s life. Nevertheless, her conviction is jarring and severe at times. Together, supporting figures representing the opposing ends of morality, law, and order (i.e. Escalus, Provost, Elbow) and moral decay, crime, and disorder (Pompey, especially) serve as a balanced, collective voice of reason – and levity. In short, convincing arguments are made throughout the play for allegiance to and disdain for either side of the law.
As with AWTEW, scenic elements augment the ultimate strength and appeal of the Public’s production of M4M, which is the clarity with which the ensemble relays this rich, morally complex tale. Playing in rep, these two productions share a stage and cast. The costume, lighting, music, and picturesque set design for both – the most prominent shared feature being a large, open horizontal bridge-like structure with the Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle as a backdrop – are breathtaking and support the respectively lyrical and edgy tones of either production.
But the very best thing about both productions – especially because I have yet to finish reading M4M - is the ensemble. The lead actors – especially the female protagonists – deliver outstanding performances that audiences expect from performers at the helm of a show. However, it is a feat that I was able to get about 85% of the nuances of the complex rhetoric of M4M because all of the actors are so good. My ears are attuned to Shakespeare and dense language; so, even if I’m not greatly familiar with a classical play, for instance, I usually walk away with a general idea. But I left the Delacorte Theater understanding the intricacies of M4M in a deeper way than, I’m pretty sure, I ever have from a play this demanding of an audience – and dynamic in its payoff – with which I wasn’t already very well acquainted.
Ironically, considering the ultimate prevalence of mercy in Measure for Measure, perhaps it should’ve been named All’s (or, at least, “Much’s“) Well That Ends Well … but Shakespeare apparently had more confidence in his audience.
Good for us … and good for you that you have until next Saturday, July 30th to catch Measure for Measure and/or All’s Well That Ends Well at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
*Image credit: www.stage-rush.com