Measure for Measure is a curious play. The last of Shakespeare’s comedies, it tells a pretty dark story on the way to its more-or-less happy, if abrupt, ending. Spicy Witch Productions‘ new, radically pruned rendition seizes on the theme of the ill treatment of women to create an audacious feminist reading. Fast-paced and well played, it mostly succeeds.
In the original, Isabella is about to enter a religious order when she learns her brother Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornicating. This trespass, long overlooked in Vienna, is being prosecuted harshly by Angelo, empowered by the absent Duke to rule in his stead.
The setting, for no particular reason, remains Vienna, but the nunnery becomes a law firm. The Duke is transmuted into Chief Justice Vincentia, who leaves the city in the hands of the puritanical Angelo. And behind Angelo’s desk hangs a portrait not of him, but of Brett Kavanaugh. (The messages here aren’t subtle.) Vincentia disguises herself not as a cleric but as a reporter. Thus she can gain access to Claudio and his pregnant beloved, Juliet, in prison, just as a clergyman could. (And still can today, of course.)
But the most radical change, dramaturgically speaking, is the fusion of the bawd Mistress Overdone with Angelo’s one-time betrothed Mariana into one character, “Mariana Overdone.” It’s true that the Mariana storyline is the most contrived part of Shakespeare’s plot: the undercover Duke conspires with Isabella to substitute Mariana for herself in a conjugal visit with Angelo. Mariana is a thinly drawn character who appears only very late in the play.
But connecting Angelo to the whorehouse madam doesn’t ring true. Perhaps we are supposed to assume that his abandonment of Mariana led her to a life of debauchery. That may align with this reworking’s focus on women’s subjugation under a tyrannical patriarchy. But it leaves Sarah Rosengarten, who plays the chimeric “Mariana Overdone,” at a loss as to how to create an identifiable character.
Happily, the rest of the cast has more authentic personae to work with. Blake Kelton Prentiss’s Angelo is as smugly sure of himself as the modern-day right-wing moral hypocrites he epitomizes. (His “my vouch against you” line chimes loudly with the recent memory of the Kavanaugh hearings.) His attraction to Isabella seems to come out of nowhere after his initial dismissiveness. But if, as the text suggests, the fateful bargain he proposes is more an exercise in corrupt power than a manifestation of authentic lust, this becomes sadly believable. In any case, he’s the kind of venal law officer we’re all too familiar with in real life.
In a production with a number of good, appealing performances, Pearl Shin’s Isabella shines especially. This striving young attorney from the Sisterhood of the Attorneys of Saint Claire (a wonderful conceit) turns constant fussing with thick legal files into the outward expression of blossoming anxiety. Her trauma is manifest whether she’s defiant, hopeful, or falling apart.
Ashil Lee is appealingly animated as the jokester Lucia. Canter is rock-steady as the Chief Justice-cum-reporter, though her motivations aren’t always clear. (It’s not for nothing Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”)
Canter’s clear diction stands out. Casts of small American Shakespeare productions are often directed to speed through their lines, there being so many of them. That’s the case here, and Canter finds the happiest medium between economy and understandability.
Brooks directs with efficiency too. Scene changes are almost instantaneous, with an office and a dais for public announcements comprising almost the entirety of the set. Effective lighting and sound help create a convincing atmosphere.
Measure for Measure runs through June 1 at The Flea Theater in repertory with a new play on a similar theme, The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows” by Gina Femia, reviewed here. For tickets and information visit Spicy Witch Productions online or call 212-226-0051.