MEASURE FOR MEASURE not a “problem play” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival

CEDAR CITY — A sense of doom hangs over most of Measure for Measure as Claudio sits in prison awaiting his execution. With a death warrant signed by Angelo, the temporary ruler of Vienna as the duke travels abroad, Claudio and his friends fret about his impending death, feeling completely hopeless as the hours tick by. The executioner makes his preparations, and Angelo steadfastly insists on administering justice as he brushes off any suggestion of a pardon.

Steve Wojtas as Angelo in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

Steve Wojtas as Angelo in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

Director Laura Gordon is responsible for the oppressive mood that permeates most of Measure for Measure, and she never ceases to encourage sympathy for Claudio. Technically Claudio (played by Zack Powell) has broken the law by impregnating his fiancée, Juliet (played by Natasha Harris), but Gordon capitalizes on Shakespeare‘s text and emphasizes how the law has rarely been enforced, leading to the conclusion that inconsistent justice is actually a form of injustice. As the play progresses, Claudio becomes increasingly disheveled and the pleas of his sister, Isabella (played by Erika Haaland) grow more impassioned. By the end of the play the tension is almost unbearable, and the climax that Gordon has created seems to cry out for resolution.

I’m also pleased with Gordon’s decision to trust Shakespeare’s script (even though Measure for Measure is sometimes considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”) and create a simple staging that in every scene emphasizes the love and the conflict among the characters. Unlike many directors of Shakespeare, Gordon does not fill the play with constant stage business and distracting gestures, nor does she clutter the stage with supernumeraries in an effort to convey grandeur. Rather, the emphasis of this production is on the hopes and desires of  these lesser-known Shakespeare characters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the heart-wrenching scene between Isabella and Claudio in prison, or in the creepy scene in Act III where Angelo tries to extort sex from Isabella in exchange for Claudio’s life. By stressing the relationships among the characters at these crucial moments Gordon created a play that I found easy to become emotionally invested in.

Erika Haaland (left) as Isabella and Steve Wojtas as Angelo in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

Erika Haaland (left) as Isabella and Steve Wojtas as Angelo in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

Thankfully, most of the cast was able to fulfill Gordon’s vision for Measure for Measure. Steve Wojtas‘s decision to make Angelo cool and collected made his flustered reactions in Act V (when his efforts to administer justice and obtain personal pleasure unravel) extremely satisfying. Yet, Wojtas also remembered Angelo’s sinister side, and the character’s soliloquy about his lust for Isabella introduced a degree of instability to Angelo, which made Claudio’s peril greater. Haaland was a tender Isabella; at first I felt her pleas for Claudio’s life were too subtle. But because what I took for subtlety was actually reluctance, this choice allowed Isabella’s emotions and appeals to develop and take many more forms than if she had been a frantic supplicant from the beginning. I also felt that Haaland created an authentic sibling relationship with Powell, and their meeting in Act III was the most emotionally rewarding scene of the play.

As Claudio, Powell is dashing in his first scene, but as the seriousness of his situation wears on Claudio, the character becomes more subdued and despondent. I found this appropriate change to be one of the many aspects of the production that created the heavy mood of the play. Also, John G. Preston‘s Duke Vincentio was a welcomed stabilizing force in the show. Whether as the duke of Vienna or disguised as a monk, Preston lends a gravitas to the play that fits the role well, such as when Vincentio hatches the intricate plot to rescue Claudio or in Act V when he is administering justice in the wake of Angelo’s rule.

Jonathan Smoots (left) as Lucio and Zack Powell as Claudio in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

Jonathan Smoots (left) as Lucio and Zack Powell as Claudio in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

The only actor in the cast that left me unsatisfied was Jonathan Smoots as Lucio. His demonstrative acting style felt overindulgent, and didn’t mesh with the performances of the other comic actors (such as Anthony Simone as Pompey or Jason Michael Spelbring as Constable Elbow). Consequently, Lucio felt less like a rogue from the underbelly of Vienna and more like the unashamedly clownish Launce from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Given the more somber mood of the other characters, this made Lucio seem out of place.

Bill Black‘s Renaissance costumes make Measure for Measure a visual feast, and I enjoyed the contrast between the rulers’ black-and-white garb and the citizens’ colorful clothing. Donna Ruzika‘s lighting was an indispensable component to the show, and she somehow managed to make the prison scenes feel claustrophobic, even though they were played outdoors. Finally, Joe Payne‘s music contributed to the atmosphere of the play, such as after Escalus’s statement that, “There is no remedy for Claudio.” The level of unity among all of the designers’ work was superb.

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Measure for Measure. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)

Given the plot details that I have mentioned so far, I am going to say something that some readers will find surprising: I propose that Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s most religious plays. Even though the play contains a scene in a brothel, talk of extramarital sex, and an out of wedlock pregnancy, a Christian worldview is not far from the surface of the script. Faint echoes of the New Testament abound (most obviously in the title), and although nobody in the play explicitly says so, Vincentio’s actions seem motivated by Christian mercy. Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s secular sermon in which he shows how Christian teachings should be implemented in a gritty reality with prostitutes, princes, and provosts. Moreover, Shakespeare uses this story of sin to explore some of his favorite moral themes, such as the importance of forgiveness (also explored in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest) and the place of mercy under the law (The Merchant of Venice).

So, I encourage readers to attend Measure for Measure at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this year. Under Gordon’s masterful direction, the problems in this “problem play” fall away, leaving a touching story full of love and pathos.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure plays at 8 PM on various days through August 29 at the Adams Shakespearean Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah University. Tickets are $16-73. For more information, visit www.bard.org.