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Students take on Shakespeare with "Measure for Measure"

BY MOLLY MCGUIRE
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 11, 2008

The Rude Mechanicals present Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”
November 14 & 15, 8 p.m.
November 16, 2 p.m.
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre
$5, $3 with student ID

As an opus on sex, corruption and hypocrisy all wrapped up in a chocolatey comedy shell, “Measure for Measure” is clearly one of Shakespeare’s darkest comedies. The student-run theater group “The Rude Mechanicals” is tackling the famously difficult work for their annual Shakespeare production. Premiering tonight, the play is set in a seedy, medieval Vienna occupied by unsavory malefactors and moralists.

With mistaken identity and a Duke in disguise, “Measure for Measure” is full of those impractical but delightful tricks that pepper classic Shakespearean comedy. But it’s not all fun and games; the play wavers between comedy and tragedy in a striking portrayal of power, corruption, righteousness and sin.

“In terms of the rest of Shakespeare, ‘Measure for Measure’ is one of the most morally tangled and ambiguous plays,” LSA Senior Jim Manganello, the play's director, said.

The plot centers on Angelo, a young deputy left to rule Vienna by the Duke, who pretends to leave the city on business. In the Duke's absence, the deputy takes it upon himself to clean up Vienna’s streets by hook or by crook. Enforcing strict laws on illegal sexual activity, he goes on a moral rampage and ends up condemning a man to death for impregnating a woman out of wedlock. The condemned's sister, Isabella, pleads to Angelo for her brother’s life. In return, Angelo hypocritically demands her virginity, setting up an intense conflict for the hyper-virtuous leading lady. “More than our brother is our chastity,” Isabella says in an unsettling soliloquy.

“Measure for Measure” has been classified a “problem play” by many scholars, partly due to Shakespeare’s prowess in confronting the problems plaguing society.

“The idea is that (the problem plays) tackle social issues in a way that other Shakespeare plays don’t,” Manganello said. “Definitely in ‘Measure for Measure,’ there is discussion of political corruption, sexual politics, hypocrisy (and) meaty social issues.”

Because of its peculiar transitions between disquieting subject matter and bouts of jolly jesting, “Measure for Measure” is also considered a problem play in the sense that it’s difficult to perform. But it’s no problem for this production: The jarring shifts only serve to highlight the actors' abilities and Shakespeare’s craftsmanship in emphasizing the main themes.

“There’s a nucleus to this play, and almost every single scene refers back to it,” Manganello said. “You’ll go from a scene that’s a serious trial, or a serious legal debate, and immediately these two clowns will march in with drums and tambourines and put on a mock trial. So even the clown scene is dealing with the same issues as everything else. It’s sort of those two worlds that keep flipping back and forth.”

There are two worlds to this play: worlds of nuns and brothel madams, strict officials and perverse prisoners, moral severity and tawdriness. “Measure for Measure” concentrates on these opposing worlds and their intersections: the places where the subversive underbelly of Vienna touches the ethically austere surface.

“As the play goes on you realize that there are lines connecting these two worlds, tendrils that never really were broken,” Manganello said. “Each of the worlds encodes the other one.”

To emphasize this duality, Manganello has actors play more than one role; many characters from Vienna’s sordid underground double as their foil from the official world. Angelo’s jilted lover Mariana (LSA senior Lara Vanderheiden) is often viewed by scholars as the image of chastity. Yet Vanderheiden also plays the aptly named Mistress Overdone, a veteran bordello keeper. LSA sophomore Dan Rubens plays both Angelo and the repellent prisoner Barnardine.

“Angelo and Barnardine are very different, but in a way they’re very similar. They’re both kind of leaders of their worlds,” Rubens said.

Whether they're putting gangster fairies into “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or turning Prospero from “The Tempest” into The Godfather, many directors have reached beyond the bonds of time and place when adapting Shakespeare's plays, sometimes with ridiculous or outrageous results. While the sexual repression inherent in “Measure for Measure” almost led Manganello to set it in Freud’s Vienna, he decided against updating it to a modern time. Instead, he moved the play back two centuries before it was written. Set in 1300s Vienna, The Rude Mechanicals’s production of “Measure for Measure” has meticulously researched inspirations, from Boccaccio’s “Decameron” to a 12th-century festival called “The Feast of the Ass.”

“You choose a historical era and you view it through a modern lens,” Manganello said, detailing the vision for the set: a modernist, minimalist Gothic-cathedral-playground.

But the reason for all this divergence from the classical when putting on Shakespeare is the playwright’s enduring relevance in any time or place, which is particularly apparent in “problem plays” like this one.

“I think it makes them particularly relevant to almost every era that they are performed in because these problems do keep cropping up. It’s not like he’s tackling universal health care in the US in 1950. That’s not the type of problem play it is. It’s as if someone said OK, sexual corruption, go. That’s the problem. And that’s something that is infinitely transposable,” Manganello said.