Wednesday, January 21, 2015

This Shakes play really "Measures" up!

Cindy Im as Isabella and Moses Yim as Claudio in Measure for Measure (Photo by John Ulman)
Measure for Measure
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through February 1, 2015

This is already the best play of 2015 and while that doesn’t mean it couldn’t get knocked off its perch, it will likely take a while. While people proclaim Measure for Measure Shakespeare’s problem play and it is not nearly the funniest of his comedies, the current production at Seattle Shakespeare Company hits all the right buttons in the production and makes it as intelligible and justified as it might possibly be.

It also is a beautiful example of post-racial casting (if you will), or even intentional use of people of color in ways that augment a script. This is the kind of production many of us have been hoping for.


Director Desdemona Chiang cast a beautifully nuanced group of actors that subtly reinforce other messages Shakespeare might never have intended, but in this production can be pondered and witnessed. The main white characters, the Duke, the Duke’s second in command, and two ne’er-do-wells who get away with far more as whites than other characters would if people of color, demonstrate that their skin color creates an offhand sense of entitlement that couldn’t possibly have been envisioned by Shakespeare.

Two men in support roles, who here happen to be black, are forced to carry out arbitrary edicts from above, but both demonstrate restraint and concern for those orders. Their struggle to manage the orders in humane ways bring to the fore these smallish roles and give them depth.

The story, here transposed to a vaguely 1960s society, tells about a Duke (David Anthony Lewis, wearing his privilege lightly at first) who experiments with revamping his society’s rules by going on vacation and appointing his second in command Angelo (Bradford Farwell, as anguished and rule-bound), who immediately imposes a much harsher adherence to “rules.” But the Duke disguises himself as a priest and watches to see what happens.

Immediately, a young man (Moses Yim) is arrested for making his fiancée (Ayo Tushinde) pregnant. Sex before marriage is an old forbidden law, and Claudio’s life is suddenly forfeit because they did not have the dowry to marry and Angelo wants to make Claudio an example. Claudio’s low-life friend Lucio (Tim Gouran in top clowning form) encourages Claudio’s sister, novitiate Isabella (Cindy Im) to advocate mercy.

Angelo finds himself so attracted to Isabella that he offers a twisted deal: if Isabella will bed him, he will pardon Claudio. The rest of the play focuses on whether Isabella will agree, or if there is hope in what looks to be a hopeless situation. Since it’s a “comedy,” we know that somehow Claudio will live, but Shakespeare throws in plot twists like: Angelo had a fiancée that lost her dowry and he dumped her (see the parallel to Claudio’s situation?) and the pretend-priest manipulates the outcome to reveal himself the Duke, but not before he manipulates pretty much everyone else.

The underlings mentioned above are Sylvester Kamara as Escalus and Marcel Davis as Provost, roles that often disappear into the play, yet here take on deeper significance. Both do more than justice to their parts.

There really isn’t a slight player in the ensemble! A lovely addition is David Anthony Lewis’ daughter, Anna Lewis, who is part of the ensemble and has an opportunity to show off a very able singing voice. (Tree, apple.)

The set consists of stylized columns with a sort of “s” shaped bottom that can become a frame together or move to provide other shapings. Phillip Lienau creates a simple but elegant visual plane. The costuming by Christine Tschirgi is unassumingly 19something that does not jar or shout “look, I’m a modern costume.” Lighting by Andrew D. Smith and sound by Evan Mosher complete the well done technical support.

In many ways, the themes of this play can be viewed as some of the most timeless (besides love stories which will never die) of Shakespeare’s canon. We’ll never know monarchies and may not care much about English history, but we all know people with power and how it might be abused, and are confronted on a daily basis with hypocrisies of politicians. This production brings out every nuance of those subjects in a clear, cogent, exciting way.

For more information, go to www.seattleshakespeare.org or call 206-733-8222.