Measure for Measure
By William Shakespeare
St. James Players
Friday, Sept. 14, Saturday, Sept. 15, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 16, 2 p.m., with panel discussion to follow
Saint James Episcopal Church, 581 Valley Road
Free. Donations accepted.
By STEFANIE SEARS
For Montclair Local
The play is 415 years old, but its issues are Twitter-current.
In William Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure,” corrupt politicians use power for sex. People in power who appear the most righteous have the most to hide.
In the play, the Duke of Vienna (played by Jamie Pagliaro, St. James Players board member, and leader of the Renaissance rock band BARD) leaves his position temporarily, putting his deputy Angelo in charge.
But Angelo is no angel. There’s a law on the books making fornication a capital crime. And when a chaste novice Isabella pleads for her brother, Claudio, sentenced to death for impregnating his fiancee, Angelo issues an ultimatum: sleep with him, or her brother dies.
When an angry Isabella vows to expose him, Angelo replies, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” Shades of #believewomen.
So the St. James Players’ production of the Bard’s classic is timely, and calls up the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements.
In fact, the flyer for the play includes those two hashtags.
The St. James Players’ version takes place in 1960s Italy, a setting chosen due to the historical and religious significance of the introduction of Vatican II and birth control during that time. Press materials state that the design and context was inspired by the 1960 Fellini movie, “La Dolce Vita.” Paparazzi and onlookers serve as a silent chorus, complete with cigarettes and martinis and and costumes are black and white. A narrator choral character called “Diva,” clad in a red dress, is played by board vice president Frankie Spear.
Director Kerr Lockhart chose the approach, after observing that the outside world was often missing in productions of the play.
For both Angelo and the duke, public profile versus privacy is examined.
“Angelo’s fall is only an important fall when people observe it,” Lockhart said.
OLD AND TIMELY
Lockhart, whose play “Peter Cratchit, Esq.” was given a reading last year at St. James Players and is directing for St. James Players for the first time, suggested three different ideas to the board. As soon as he mentioned “Measure for Measure” as an option, all agreed to it.
“This proves that Shakespeare is timeless. He hit on issues that are still current today,” said St. James Players President Joan Griffin, who is also the play’s producer. Griffin also portrays several roles in the show.
The actress who plays Isabella, Hattie Kenduck, also finds the material relevant. “You have a person in a position of power forcing themselves upon someone who needs something from them,” said Kenduck, a recent Southern Regional High School graduate. Kenduck is new to St. James Players.
Though 20th and 21st century audiences often portray the material as heavy, the play’s genre is comedy: It ends in marriage.
The duke, who watches Angelo in disguise as a friar, and interacts with Isabella, proposes to her: his own form of blackmail.
Modern directors often portray Isabella’s predicament as bittersweet, but Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen it as happy. Isabella was not yet a nun, and her enthusiasm for convent life would have been interpreted as a sign that she was not yet mature enough to know her own mind.
The 2018 Off-Broadway musical “Desperate Measures,” set in the Old West, is a rare production that presented Isabella and the duke as falling in love.
The St. James Players’ production focuses on the drama and serious side.
When the duke proposes, Isabella does not respond. Lockhart handles this in a straightforward manner by leaving the ending open ended, just relying on the given text.
“It certainly is the mystery of the play, the fact that he [Shakespeare] gives Isabella no answer,” Lockhart said. He looked up various past productions of the play and noticed that while some directors show Isabella eagerly accepting, her enthusiasm is not in the text.
“I am not trying to put a 2018 frame on it,” he said. “I did set it in a Catholic country in a time when the church was present, but losing its hold. I’m very much text driven. We get little inklings that the duke might like to be able to take care of her, somewhere between fatherly and husbandly. That is all the text gives us. Given that, I couldn’t justify her acceptance because Shakespeare didn’t set it up. Therefore we leave her silent.”
“It’s a very confusing moment because being proposed to by the prince, in any other story, that’s the happy ending,” Kenduck said. “But Isabella isn’t your typical leading lady in the sense that she wants to become a nun. Marriage and that doesn’t exactly line up. Her reaction at the end isn’t exactly joy, but shock at what is happening.”
According to Lockhart, usually with modern audiences, Isabella’s virginity is often met with unwanted laughter. However, in this production, Isabella’s chastity fits into the culture and is accepted without question.
A MATCHED SET?
It is Isabella’s virginity and eloquence that causes Angelo (played by Felipe Rodriguez) to fall in love with her.
Rodriguez, who was last seen in the St. James Players’ production of “As You Like It” last year, agrees with Kenduck that Angelo is not a redeemable character. Angelo’s lack of experience confuses him and causes him to endure the feelings of love and lust for the first time, which leads to his uncertainty of how to handle them.
“That’s the thing. He’s never felt really either of those feelings. He’s never seen anyone as pure and as smart as Isabella, so there is that lust factor, but it’s also like, ‘God, that’s amazing. That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’” Rodriguez said.
Kenduck agreed that Angelo is confused about his feelings. “Ultimately, the reason he ends up assaulting her, is that he professes his love for her and she throws it back in his face about how he has no honor,” she said.
Lockhart stated that because of the similar repressed worlds both Angelo and Isabella come from, they would possibly have made a good couple if Angelo had known how to better manage the situation.
Like many activities at the St. James Episcopal Church, this performance is a part of the church’s outreach program for the community. Of course, this play could also possibly leave some audiences uncomfortable and offended. In fact, this is what Lockhart is hoping for.