After I saw a production of the Scottish play a few years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to go to see any more Shakespeare plays because the language was too much of a barrier for me to enjoy them in live performance.
Then a few weeks ago I noticed that the Lantern Theater Company was doing Measure for Measure, and I broke that rule because I’ve never seen that particular play in performance and it’s a special favorite of mine because Shakespeare, or whoever was writing under that name, reveals what he believes true justice and mercy entails.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, here is a quick summary. The Duke of Vienna, realizing that he’s been lax in enforcing the laws decides to leave the city in the charge of Angelo, a stern, puritanical man of impeccable character. Angelo immediately sets an example of Claudio, a nobleman who has impregnated his fiancé before their wedding, by sentencing him to death. Claudio’s sister Isabella pleads her brother’s case, and Angelo agrees to free Claudio—if Isabella will have sex with Angelo. Isabella, who was about to become a nun, refuses.
Meanwhile, the Duke returns disguised as a friar in order to see how Angelo is doing. He tells Isabella that Angelo had been betrothed to Mariana, but he dumped her when she lost her dowry. Mariana for some inexplicable reason is still in love with Angelo, and the disguised Duke suggests that Isabella agree to sleep with Angelo on condition it be done in the dark, and Mariana will swap places with her.
The deal is made, and Angelo reneges on his side of the bargain and commands that Claudio be beheaded anyway. Does Angelo sound like anyone you’ve heard of? The Duke tells Isabella her brother is dead, but secretly arranges to spare Claudio. In the final scene the Duke returns as himself, and Isabella reveals Angelo’s treachery and duplicity and debauchery. The Duke decrees that Angelo must marry Mariana, and then leaves Angelo’s fate in Isabella’s hands. Should Angelo be executed for his crimes as he had her brother killed, or should his life be spared and he be allowed to be Mariana’s husband?
Isabella shows Angelo the mercy that he never showed her brother. Then the Duke reveals that her brother Claudio lives, and the Duke declares his intention to marry Isabella. Shakespeare doesn’t give Isabella’s reply to this declaration, but the implication is, because this is a comedy, that of course she will marry him. Curtain.
There are several other characters and several other plot complications, but that’s the gist. And the point seems to be that for the word mercy to have any meaning at all, we must show it to those we hate, not just to those we are sympathetic to.
Anyway, I have never enjoyed a Shakespeare play as much as I enjoyed the Lantern’s Measure for Measure. All the actors were top notch, and most of them doubled in more than one role. The theater is a small one with a thrust stage, so the audience sits on three sides of it, right in the middle of the action. And very unusually for me, I understood enough of the dialog to follow the action, even if I hadn’t refreshed myself on the details yesterday.
For a comedy, there weren’t that many laughs—until the final scene when all hell broke loose, and the audience was really enjoying themselves as one revelation followed another. There is a secondary character, Lucio, a friend of Claudio’s who helps Isabella and then later gets himself into hot water by dissing the Duke to the friar (who is actually the Duke in disguise). I don’t know if the actor intended it, but he was made up to look a little bit like Randy Rainbow. He acted a little bit like him too. As I say, I don’t know if that was intentional.
After the performance, there was an Artists in Conversation with the actors, who looked very different without their makeup. We found out that this play was scheduled a couple years ago, long before the #MeToo movement exploded. Among the other questions they were asked was why stay in Philadelphia rather than New York, to which the answer was they don’t need an agent in Philly, thus saving money, and the atmosphere is very friendly and collegial here.
Oh, I almost forgot. They changed the ending.
Directors have been tinkering with Shakespeare’s plays since—well, probably ever since they were written. Sometimes the tinkering works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time I thought it worked brilliantly, and judging by the audience’s reaction, I wasn’t the only one.
When Claudio is revealed to have escaped the the executioner, the Duke says this to Isabella: “Give me your hand and say you will be mine.” Shakespeare gives Isabella no reply and in this production she ignores the Duke and goes to hug her brother.
Then at the end the Duke says to her:
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine.”
To which this Isabel replied: “What the f—” [GONG]