By any yardstick, SU Drama’s ‘Measure for Measure’ stacks up well
Director Celia Madeoy takes the Bard’s 400-year-old play out of a purely academic context and makes it relevant
It is almost considered a right of passage for drama students to stage a Shakespearian play. That they have chosen this particular play, Measure for Measure, to test and sharpen their skills brings about a whole other level of difficulty. The students and staff of SU Drama, however, have risen the to the challenge admirably, creating a visually stunning, fast paced and well-acted production.
The troupe’s challenges in bringing the Bard’s 400-year-old poetry to life, and making it resonate for themselves as well as the audience, are many. For starters, the very language itself has changed over time. Words and phrases with meanings easily understood by Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences have left the language, and today are alien to modern audiences. This is further complicated by the metaphorical use of language by Shakespeare.
For example, as Measure for Measure begins, two characters engage in extended metaphorical word play, punning on the words list and pile — words common in Shakespeare’s time to indicate the quality of clothing but largely unknown in this context today. Potentially more difficult are the subtle changes in the meanings of other words. One character in the process of accusing another of running a house of prostitution uses the word naughty to describe the house of ill repute. In Shakespeare’s day, though, the word meant sexually promiscuous or wicked, and didn’t take on the meaning modern audiences associate with it (i.e., being mischievous or mildly disobedient) until almost a century after Shakespeare died.
The cultural context has changed, as well. Ideas, attitudes and what could be considered common knowledge for audiences have changed. References to the King of Hungry that might have evoked a chuckle in 1604 are just plain puzzling to audiences in 2015. Moreover, ideas about gender, marriage, sex and sexuality have subtly shifted. All of this adds up to a problem Shakespeare never had to worry about. Modern day actors need to worry about whether the jokes are funny, but Shakespearian actors also have to worry about whether audience will even understand that it is a joke.
Despite all these challenges, director Celia Madeoy and her cast and crew have managed to produce a delightful and solid production of Measure for Measure that succeeds in grabbing the audience’s attention and pulling them into the world that Shakespeare had created.
Measure for Measure is hardly the first play to come to mind when someone hears the name “Shakespeare.” For the average theatergoer, great tragedies such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear are probably more likely to come to mind. Were you to narrow the list to Shakespeare’s comedies, people might think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Taming of the Shrew. But let’s face it: Measure for Measure is not on anyone’s short list of Bard comedies.
The difficulties of presenting a Shakespearian drama are multiplied when you can’t be sure if the audience comes to the theater with a sense of the plot. Even if an audience member misses a few lines in Hamlet, most people know the basic plot and can follow along. This cannot be taken for granted with Measure for Measure. The plot here is complex, with many twists and turns, and several members of the cast take on multiple roles. Since this play is a comedy, the majority of the “action” on stage consists of characters talking with one-another. Being able to follow the verbal action, then, is essential. (Audience members unfamiliar with the story are advised to read a brief overview of the plot before attending the show.)
These challenges are mitigated by the choice to stage the play in the Loft Theater at the Syracuse Stage/Drama Complex. Sometimes referred to as the “Black Box,” this laboratory theater space is a small and intimate performance area that puts the audience in close proximity to the actors and the action.
The room is roughly square with the audience seated along two adjoining sides. The sparse, minimalist set covers the other two sides of the square. The actors are not up on a stage, but share the floor with the audience — which must pass through the sets to get to their seats. (I was lucky enough to sit in the first row and it was thrilling to watch sword fights, songs performed, and actors delivering their lines a mere few feet away.) It is a rare and special thing to be able to lock eyes with an actor delivering an intense and emotional monologue, as I did with Ezekiel Edmonds (playing Angelo).
In short, there are no bad seats in the house: all allow for intimate connections between the listener and the actors and action. Scenic Designer Maria Marrero has created a magnificent set that allows the actors to shine.
Shakespeare’s dialogue presents a challenge for even the most well seasoned actors, but these young actors rose to the challenge. Although there were moments where the language seemed to overwhelm the student-actors, such as where the dense lines of iambic pentameter poetry seem to become divorced from meaning and sense, the students for the most part were in control of the lines and imbued them the necessary significance.
Two deserve special mention for their performances. Ezekiel Edmonds (Angelo) and Lydia Stinson (Isabella) delivered outstanding performances, playing off of one-another with surprising intensity. Angelo is the antagonist of the play, creating the crisis that propels the play forward — but Edmonds plays him as more than simply “the bad guy.” We feel pity and empathy for Angelo even as his repulsive actions cause the audience to despise him. Edmond’s depravity and manic energy, as he attempts to force himself on Isabella, are matched by Stinson’s physicality and quiet dignity. The character is in an impossible situation, and knows it — but she neither gives in nor gives up.
Stinson plays Isabella with a strength that marks her as the heroine of this play, and in many ways outshines her male counterparts. Additionally, Isabella Moore (who plays as many as three different characters) simply blew the audience away with her singing. (The first time she opened her mouth to sing, she established an amazing presence.) Whenever she began to sing, the audience knew they were in for a treat. Even Luke Brau, as Pompey the tapster, gets in on the act — surprising the audience by belting out a blues tune with Moore in the second act.
The lines that the actors deliver may be from 1604, but the costumes mark them as living in a Victorian/Steampunk mash-up. The costumes, designed by Simon Brett, are themselves very beautiful and show marvelous attention to detail. They enhance the play visually and thematically while not distracting from it.
One costume in particular caught my eye: The character of Elbow the constable, played by Alen Ghavami, bore a remarkable resemblance to the Station Inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film, Hugo. This immediately marked him as a comic figure for the audience — offering a hint as to how we might understand him. It also shows that the well-documented influence of Shakespeare on popular culture can flow both ways. Here we see a costume designer borrowing from a contemporary film set almost a century ago in order to bring life and nuance to a 400-year-old play.
Lights and sound, when done correctly, ought to blend into the background. They ought to work quietly to enhance the emotional resonance of what is happening on stage. In most cases, if you notice the lights or the sound it is because there is some problem. In this instance, though, Lighting Designer Hyrum Judkins and Sound Designer Kevin O’Connor have created beautiful works of art in their own right. The sound of a ticking clock at just the right moment creates suspense and heightens the drama. Judkins’s judicious and beautiful use of lighting effects helps establish transitions between scenes as well as create a context for the emotional truths created by the actors.
Finally, there is a small display in the lobby focused on the sets, lights and costumes that is not to be missed. (The miniature set model alone is worth a look.) The costume sketches are enthralling and the “Light Plot” is fascinating. All offer a look into the behind-the-scenes world of theater that is little known, or little understood, by most playgoers.
Madeoy and her production team have bought everything together into a cohesive vision. Her choice of Measure for Measure, while difficult, really works. Shakespearian scholars often discuss the play in terms of the way it highlights moral hypocrisy, the role of the state in regulating morality, its commentary on the growing Puritan movement and other, sometimes esoteric, themes.
But Madeoy has taken this little-known play out of a purely academic context and made it relevant. By highlighting the sexual politics inherent in the play, the audience cannot help but think about the issues it raises for us. The character Angelo does more than make an “indecent proposal” to Isabella — he attempts to rape her. When she threatens to tell the world, he says:
Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh…
Who indeed will believe her? I can’t help but think of recent discussions in the media surrounding sexual assault on our college campuses and in our culture at large. Where can she go? To whom can she talk and seek advice?
In the real world, most victims of this kind of abuse will not have a powerful ally who comes in at just the right moment to make everything right. A woman in this position is lucky to find someone to believe her, much less help her to find justice. I applaud Madeoy’s bold decision to make this part of her vision.
What: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, directed by Celia Madeoy
Where: Loft Theater, Syracuse Stage/Drama Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: Mar. 28, 2015 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through April 12
Length: About two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $19 general admission ($17 seniors 65+ and full-time students)
Call: 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: Adult language and themes