Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: (Stratford) Measure for Measure

Carmen Grant and Tom Rooney (photo by Michael Cooper)

Moulded Out of Faults
Stratford mounts a good production of a mediocre play
by Stuart Munro and Dave Ross

Measure for Measure has long been recognized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” While usually classified as a comedy, the themes of betrayal, political intrigue, and sexual coercion are anything but a laughing matter. The result is that the play ends up with a bit of a split personality – half intense political and romantic drama, and half farce, involving some clownish characters and an aging prostitute. Any director tackling this play certainly has a tough task ahead of them. 

Stuart Munro: Stratford veteran (and former Measure for Measure star), Martha Henry, lends her more than capable skill to this challenging material, and under her watchful eye the production probably succeeds better than it might’ve otherwise. Henry has chosen to set the play in 1949 post-war Vienna, a political atmosphere that, as Henry says in her director’s notes, is a perfect “setting for a story that depends on intrigue, chance, opportunity and picking up whatever you can in the street in order to make a living.” Henry’s direction uses the unconventional space of the Tom Patterson Theatre brilliantly, and I was constantly reminded of why this is one of my favourite venues in the world. The aesthetic created by Henry and designer John Pennoyer does a good job of conveying a film noire-inspired world of faded glory that is, slowly, on the way to recovery. Moreover, Todd Charlton’s sound design goes a long way to marrying the two disparate parts of this play – the comedy and the drama.

Dave Ross: I would have to disagree here. While I thought the design was quite good, it didn’t give one the sense of being in one world. The costumes, especially, seemed to lack cohesion. What I really loved were the performances, especially Carmen Grant as Isabella. Her impassioned pleas for her brother’s life never lost their force.

SM: The performances really carried this production. In addition to Grant, I really enjoyed Tom Rooney as Angelo, and Stephen Ouimette as Lucio. Both men were able to completely get inside their characters and simply be them, without force or artifice. Geraint Wyn Davies, who does double duty as Duke Vincentio and Friar Lodowick was more successful in the latter role. His duke looked too much like other characters I’ve seen him play in the past.

DR: Despite these strong performances, the play lacks energy. This isn’t a criticism of the actors, but the material. The central plot, surrounding Isabella, the Duke, and Angelo is as topsy-turvy as one would expect from Shakespeare, with trickery and misplaced identity used to both confound and resolve elements of the story. However, there is a host of other characters and plots that just don't seem to belong here. The story seems unnecessarily complex, and weak as a result. It would seem to me that this play would never make it to stage these days.

SM: I might not go that far, but I think Measure could certainly benefit from a round of trimming and editing. There are wonderfully great ideas here that, for whatever reason, didn’t seem to get the same level of refinement that some of Shakespeare’s other comedies got. In the first half especially, the shift between the darker drama and the much lighter clowning was so sharp that it was almost shocking – they seemed like such different stories that I had a hard time knowing what kind of play I was supposed to be watching. The second half goes a long way to resolve this disconnect of style, but the play’s ending which, true to comic form, has almost everyone paired off, leaves almost all the characters unhappy (and, in this staging, not always with the partner implied by the text). Despite some very strong performances (which are worth seeing) and excellent design and direction, I can’t quite get over the problems of the play itself.

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