The following is a review of Measure for Measure, written by Dr. William Abbott, an esteemed professor of history at Fairfield University. Read on to hear Dr. Abbott’s thoughts on Theatre Fairfield’s most recent production!
Theatre Fairfield performed William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in the Pepsico Theatre from April 10th through the 15th, and if you didn’t get down to see it you missed a superb performance of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known but fascinating plays. As the play’s director Dr. Martha S. Lomonaco pointed out in the playbill, Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” in which we do not see happy endings all around, but instead are left “feeling queasy, vaguely unsatisfied, and unsure of our response.” Like life itself, this most realistic of Shakespeare’s comedies features a range of internally-conflicted characters who are neither villains nor heroes, but ordinary people caught up in the web of their own foibles and errors, and working their way through them as best they can. The ten actors were thus faced with the challenge of expressing internal conflict via bodily motion and facial expression as well as speech, and they rose to it well.
The minimalist set resembled a gritty New York subway station, with graffiti all over the walls, and each act began with the characters dancing to violent choreography and punk rock. Putting Shakespeare into a modern setting can be risky, but it worked well here because of the relatively dark and violent nature of the play. There is no outright violence in Measure for Measure: no duels, riots, or murders, but the relationships between the characters are highly stressful, and so the dancing had to bring this out. The costuming of the lower-class characters naturally featured the punk styles of the 1970s-80s, with some Mohawk hairdos and safety-pinned shirts. The upper-class characters were attired in what looked like Victorian-era suits, but not quite; the costumers wished to avoid identifying with a specific time period.
The colorful 32-page playbill, created by dramaturg Emily Skudrzyk (’14), is worth keeping for more than just memories: in it you get a free lesson in all of the theatre arts, from set production to costuming, staging, rehearsal, direction, and historical background. You need it, too, for like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, Measure for Measure has a lower-class story arc that intersects with an upper-class one, and six of the ten cast members had at least one role in each social class, while four of them had one in each gender. It was thus to their credit as actors (to say nothing of their ability to change costumes quickly) that we see Veronique Poutre portraying the sternly moralistic councilor Escalus and also the drunken villain Barnardine; Brendan McNamara the fiery brothelkeeper Mistress Overdone, the mild Friar Thomas, and the brutal jailer Abhorson; Mary Louise Corigliano the kindly Mariana and the witless constable Elbow; Tori Schuchmann the pregnant gentlewoman Juliet and also the quick-witted and outrageous tapster Pompey; and Brigid Callahan the cynical gentleman Lucio, the harmless young man Froth, and the dry-as-dust Messenger.
The heroine Isabella and the villain Angelo are at the two ends of the play’s moral spectrum, but even they show some of the ambivalence that characterizes the rest of the dramatis personae. Ashley Ruggiero’s Isabella is a forceful character rather than a gentle one, who shows tremendous passion as well; her appeal speech was magnificent. Even Isabella, however, has some hesitation about her decisions, and Ruggieri brought this out; the quiet nun does not want to be heroic, but is forced into the role. Franco Luzzi’s Angelo is a satisfyingly cruel and villainous hypocrite, but unlike Othello’s Iago or King Lear’s Cornwall, who are self-consciously evil, Angelo is blind within his puritanism, thinking himself on the side of righteousness. As Luzzi shows in the soliloquy and elsewhere, Angelo undergoes considerable internal struggle, and is often torn by doubt.
As we move towards the middle of the moral spectrum, the characters’ internal conflicts and contradictions are more manifest. Alex Mongillo had the difficult task of playing one of the good guys who is nonetheless far from being a hero. Claudio is a victim but also a victimizer, as he has not only left Juliet pregnant but, to save his own life, urges Isabella to violate her honor by acceding to Angelo’s demand. Mongillo was good as a vacillator: initially agreeing with Isabella’s steadfastness, but then caving in to his own fears. Escalus starts the play as a clerkly councilor and judge, far more honorable than Angelo because he can question the morality of a too-strict law enforcement, but Veronique Poutre’s characterization also makes him a passionate figure, as his quiet countenance on occasion breaks out into shouting. The arrogant, bawdy, and occasionally-callous Lucio is, on the face of it, an unattractively Machiavellian character, but Brigid Callahan played him with charm and sympathy; we like him in spite of ourselves, particularly when he is revealing the disguised Duke’s reputation to himself, and we detest the Duke all the more at the end of the play for the punishment he visits on Lucio. And the Duke: ah, yes. How many politicians have we seen like him? Too clever by half, intelligent but naïve, manipulative but ineffective; as rulers go, we almost prefer the villainous Angelo to this incompetent jerk. Owen Corey started him off as a fairly straight-up, if pompous, character, but as the play went on and the Duke became an ever more duplicitous plotter, Corey’s hunched-over Friar Lodowick made him almost as villainous as Angelo. When Corey sheds the cassock and straightens up as the Duke, it is clear that he has not learned anything from his experiences; in his lack of that humility that is necessary for growth, he is the same bungler who started the play. Corey did well with what is possibly the most difficult role in the play.
The lower-class characters, louder and less controlled than the swells, were also more over-the-top physically. Mary Louise Corigliano’s Elbow was a beautifully stupid cop, at times appearing almost as drunk as Barnardine. Later, Corigliano’s weeping appeal as Mariana was the single most moving moment in the play. As law-enforcement officers go, Alex Kimble’s provost was an excellent contrast to Corigliano’s Elbow: the latter blindly following the law come what may; the former disliking his job and bending the rules where possible, but nevertheless willing to carry out bad orders if he has to. Kimble needed to show that regret, and did so. (To me, Kimble’s costume resembled that of a Cuban revolutionary, but I was apparently mistaken).
I loved Pompey’s (Tori Schuchmann’s) conversation with Poutre’s Escalus: the classic clash of stern justice with wild freedom, with Schuchmann’s insolence often carrying the day. Schuchmann’s Pompey could have stepped right in from Southwark, that wild-west frontier of London with its outside-the-law alehouses and brothels. Probably the funniest character was Brendan McNamara’s brothelkeeper Mistress Overdone, complete with high heels and fish-net stockings. Theatre Fairfield has frequently put women in men’s roles in its Shakespeare productions, but they have seldom gone the other way. McNamara had the audience in stitches.
All of the actors delivered their lines with crisp intensity. The dynamic variation was limited, with voice levels going only from mezzo-forte to fortissimo. Given the intimacy of the Pepsico, I could have wished for some truly quiet conversations between the characters, but the theater’s noisy exhaust fan precluded that. Facial expressions plus the diction, however, made the lines easy to understand.
Kudos to Theatre Fairfield, for presenting one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays with subtlety and force.
Department of History