Utah Shakespeare Festival review: 'Measure for Measure' poses thorny moral questions that remain relevant

Published July 8, 2014 9:27 am
'Measure for Measure' • Production brings depth, compassion to a problematic play.
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Cedar City • "Measure for Measure," making a rare appearance at this season's Utah Shakespeare Festival, is described as one of the bard's "problem plays." The first reason is its uneasy alliance of serious and comic elements. The scenes involving the bawds, Pompey and constable Elbow take the play in a different direction from the moral issues and life-and-death questions explored elsewhere.

But there are also the thorny, ambivalent questions that shape the story. Shakespeare returns to the tension between justice and mercy he examined in "The Merchant of Venice" and introduces themes of repentance and forgiveness that become central in "The Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest."

He poses difficult moral questions and offers no answers: Where is the middle ground between liberty and repression? What is worse, death or shame? Can vice become a virtue in the service of good? Is it possible to live in a world where the law is "measure for measure," one life exacted for another? Should we condemn the sin or the sinner? What is the relationship between lechery and love?

This is a cold play, and that, too, creates problems. The characters are not sympathetic. Angelo is a self-righteous hypocrite who succumbs to the same sin for which he condemns Claudio. Isabella is cold and rigid, obsessed with preserving her virtue at any cost. Vincentio, the duke, abandons his responsibilities, watches his city's situation become dire before he acts, callously lies to Isabella and thinks he can solve everyone's problems by marrying people off to one another. In many ways, the characters seem less like flesh and blood and more like abstract qualities in a medieval morality play.

Two things redeem this production. One is the closing scene, where Mariana and Isabella put aside their personal wrongs and beg the duke for the repentant Angelo's life, a plea that he grants. These moments humanize the characters and reveal their growth in self-awareness.

The other is Laura Gordon's insightful direction and many of the performances. Gordon has cut extraneous comic scenes to clarify and unclutter the play's narrative line. She also chooses to leave the play open-ended; we are not sure what Isabella will do.

In terms of acting, John G. Preston gives the duke the uncertain air of a man who has made a transition from leader to observer and has to keep adjusting as the situation changes. Instead of disintegrating into a villain, Steve Wojtas' Angelo seems bewildered and overwhelmed by his descent into debauchery. Erika Haaland is an eloquent, impassioned Isabella, but a more experienced actor might have given the character more range and depth. Jack Greenman is a sensible and steady Provost. But the performance that steals the show is Jonathan Smoots as the reprobate Lucio. In less skillful hands, Lucio would be a vicious gossip; Smoots' smile and playful manner give him a perverse charm.

Vicki M. Smith's stark set and Donna Ruzika's somber lighting establish a subdued mood, and the counterpointed blacks and whites of Bill Black's costumes reinforce the purity/pollution dichotomy that underlies the play.

"We are all frail," Angelo observes. "Measure for Measure" asks provocative questions about human choices, and while not every theatergoer will like the play, it should prompt heated discussion. —

Does it 'Measure' up?

USF's clear, intelligent production of "Measure for Measure" minimizes the inherent problems in the play and makes it more accessible.

When • Reviewed on July 2; continues in rotating repertory with two other productions Mondays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Aug. 29

Where • Adams Shakespearean Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival on the campus of Southern Utah University, 300 West and Center Street, Cedar City

Tickets • $32 to $73 with discounts for groups, students and seniors. Tickets and information available at (800) PLAYTIX (752-9849) or http://www.bard.org

Running time • Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission)



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