Shakespeare is hard. Every time I sit down to see some Shakespeare I dread the possibility of poor execution. Will this director, these players, leave me wondering what they’re saying? Feeling like a kneaded clod for not comprehending the four century old metaphors?
Which is why, when Shakespeare is done right, there is gratitude. A gratefulness that underscores and complements the full emotional range that the Bard unfurls with his brilliant book.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of Measure for Measure made me glad like that.
I have no recollection of Measure for Measure before last night. I know I read it once. I slogged through most of the Riverside Shakespeare as an undergrad; even the history plays. But I can’t recall experiencing the oppressive weight and rage invoked by Antonio’s benightedness or the sweet relief of mercy measured out that flooded me last night. Nor do I recall being filled with grief and apprehension on hearing Claudio explain why death is a fearful thing.
I may have dismissed the play when I read it long ago because of its quaint mores -- the whole of the action hinges on sexual transgressions that are no longer life or death concerns. We do not execute men for impregnating women out of marriage; we file complaints when men in power request sordid sexual favors in exchange for political ones or we wait and call TMZ when they renege on their side of the deal.
The director Scott Williams doesn’t allow these old-world concerns to trip us up; they instead serve the core action of the play and provide just the tension required to keep the volley alive; just the strain needed to peel back the seeming and reveal the being. Nor does the director marry off all our players easily at the end -- his handling of the final scene between the Duke and Isabella is one of the moments of this production that makes it peer to London and New York productions -- Rupert Goold’s Macbeth and Sam Mendes' As You Like It come to mind.
Only the stagecraft was second rate and distracted from the whole; as did the decision to seat several rows of audience on the stage. Better that they lose the snowy soap flakes, give up a few ticket sales, and tuck away whatever that monstrous unused tubing was that floated over the stage like it was waiting for the Blue Man Group to come charging out and toss out the rain capes.
All the better not to distract from the central trinity of players in this production, all of whom answer to the strength that Shakespeare demands: Robert Sicular as the Duke, Chip Persons as Angelo, Lenne Klingaman as Isabella.
Klingaman as Isabella is especially remarkable. It would be easy to play a nun as pious and celestial, cold and untouchable; but the tiny Klingaman is rooted and real with the strength of an oak, a woman who preserves her power without apology and acts through it to make a difference for others without sacrificing herself. Antonio’s transgressions make perfect sense in the magnetic pull of her presence; as does the Duke’s sweet hopes to capture and own her.
That Williams saw an opportunity in the final scene to turn easy assumptions inside out and ensure that Isabella remains true to herself and that same strength that bathes her world with mercy and grace -- here is where the audience is changed and amazed.