Thursday, August 23, 2007

Measure for Measure

The theatre lights slowly began to darken. The audience ceased their conversations, quieted their rustlings, settled into their seats. A star or two winked at the theatre goers from the open skies above as the spotlights fixes upon a single oblong wooden table on the stage. From stage right emerged three men in Victorian garb, and thus the language of the Bard entered our ears, our minds, our hearts....

San Diego's famed Old Globe Theatre's Summer Shakespeare Festival is an event not to be missed. Each summer the troupe presents three Shakespeare plays, with all the players taking on multiple parts. The actor portraying Hamlet this summer was also acting the part of Angelo in Measure for Measure. The stage is simply set, adaptable for all three plays this summer, including the two aforementioned as well as Two Gentlemen of Verona.

E and I drove down the mountain to attend, picking up church friends Lalita and Judy. This was Lalita's first Shakespeare play, something she felt equal to tackling after reading Measure for Measure for our new Logos reading and discussion group at church. Judy, a college professor, hadn't been to the Globe for a while. Before the play started, we met up with more church friends: the Belseys, the Reynolds, the Keeseys, and the Huffs. In addition to our church friends, Carol and George were also able to attend; I met Carol online eight years ago and we've taken part in an online community since then and have also met in person several times. She and her husband and two sons have been missionaries to Malaysia in the past and hope to go back to the field when God so directs. (They're down from Oregon visiting Carol's family.) Thus, we were in excellent company to experience this challenging play, my favorite Shakespearean work since I first studied and wrote about it in a high school Shakespeare class.

Measure for Measure is set in Vienna; this production used the Victorian time period to excellent effect. The Duke of Vienna has allowed the strict laws governing public and private behaviour to lapse, and asks his deputy, Angelo, to enforce the laws in his absence. But the Duke doesn't leave; instead, he disguises himself as a friar so he can see how his subjects react to the tightening of the laws that he's unwilling to do on his own because he's afraid that doing so will risk his own popularity. During his "absence," a young man, Claudio, is discovered to have gotten his fiancee with child and, according to the law, he must be put to death. His sister, Isabella, who is ready to become a nun, is alerted of his plight and goes to Angelo to plead Claudio's cause. Angelo immediately falls "in lust" with the fair and virtuous Isabella, and states that he will free Claudio only if Isabella allows him the liberty of her virginity. The disguised Duke steps in and presents the idea of using Angelo's former fiancee, who had lost her dowry and thus had been illegally set aside by Angelo, to take Isabella's place in a darkened garden so that Angelo would not know that the woman he was with was not Isabella. Despite this subterfuge, Angelo still asks for Claudio's head by a certain time the next day. Again the Duke steps in and substitutes the head of a prisoner who had died a natural death. In the end, Angelo is unmasked and must marry the woman he wronged; Claudio is reunited with his pregnant fiancee and they are married, and the Duke, now revealed for who he is, asks Isabella to marry him. This particular production ends with Isabella removing her veil and giving the Duke a loving glance across the stage as the lights dim.

Much comic relief intermixes the serious scenes as the "bawds" of the town are gathered and sent to prison, according to the strict laws. Pompey, the main clownish dude, ends up helping the executioner, mimicking his every move. Mistress Overdone, who is "overdone" in every sense of the word, is hilarious, and the bawds provide the comic relief needed for such a serious "comedy."

The play was extremely well-acted; Isabella especially was played beautifully by an actress new to the Old Globe, Stephanie Fieger. Carol and George stayed after the play for a short discussion with the actors, and Ms. Fieger revealed that she is a believer -- the passion for her faith and virtue was so well done that I wasn't terribly surprised to hear that she is a Christian. With the title of the play coming from the seventh chapter of the gospel of St. Matthew: "...with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again" in King James' vernacular, Christian questions and themes abound. How shall the Law be enforced? How does hypocrisy affect the spirit of the Law? What place does mercy have with the Law? How does faith affect how we view the Law and other people? Is virtue of more importance than life?

After the play, our church group gathered at Denny's over dessert (and more substantial meals for some) and discussed whether we felt the Duke was the villain (he could have brought the events to a halt at any time; he didn't want to lose his popularity by enforcing the law and was willing to let another take the "fall" for him, etc.), whether virginity is as valued in today's society (Bill mentioned perhaps a twist more analagous to today's society: a man having to "service" another man rather than a virginal nun-type being asked to give up her spotlessness), and other topics. Our Logos group will discuss the play in more depth at Kitty's home after church this Sunday, a gathering that I'm looking forward to very much.

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