William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” written in 1604 but never published in his lifetime, usually falls in his “dark comedies” category (along with “Troilus and Cressida” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”), but mostly it’s called a “problem play.” Maligned for centuries for its ridiculous plot, one that pursues distasteful topics – although sex, church and state can get your attention – it then tosses them off in a hasty and contrived conclusion. Most theater companies are content to leave the work on the shelf.
But not Saul Elkin’s Shakespeare in Delaware Park. “Measure” has just opened a several-week run, the second and last play of its 38th season. Brian Cavanagh directs a willing cast, all eager to make sense out of this circuitous tale of justice, mercy and forgiveness mixed with what theater historians call “sexual unease.” The story – the original version – is this: The Duke of Vienna is dismayed with the behavior of his townsfolk. Crime is rampant. Whores and pimps rule the streets. The place is in moral decay. The Duke, dismissing his own lax leadership in all this, takes a break and leaves his post in the hands of his Puritanical deputy, Angelo.
Mistake. Iron-fisted Angelo – a guy who would “scarce confess that his blood flows” – enforces some long-neglected laws. One of them is sure to cause havoc: an anti-fornication statute. Any hanky-panky before marriage was to be punishable by death.
Young Claudio gets pretty Juliet “in trouble” and thus he’s arrested, jailed and sentenced to die in a blink. Angelo, in colorful terms, cites that Claudio has been “groping for trout, in a peculiar river.” The lad’s sister, Isabella, novice nun, is recruited to plea to Angelo for Claudio’s life. Angelo says he’ll change his mind only if Isabella sleeps with him and this causes multiplots to unfold including the old Elizabethan “bed trick,” Angelo duped, comeuppance achieved, marriages all-around, happy endings of a sort, peace restored.
The Duke, by the way, never really left town. Disguising himself as a monk, he watched goings-on from the shadows (a busybody, Lucio, called him “The Duke of Dark Corners”). And it is he who is behind all the deal-making, recognizing hypocrisy gone amok, chuckling and charading and watching people squirm at their plights. It’s no wonder that The Duke has been reviled by “Measure” audiences.
Well, all of this has been transferred by director Cavanagh to the gun-totin,’ g-droppin’ town of Vienna, Texas, with its saloon, livery stable and general store. The Duke is now The Sheriff. The story is the same, though punctuated with sagebrush philosophy and “Blazing Saddles” humor, and there are country songs, too. Loner Angelo, for example, explains himself on “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” Isabella, distraught, warbles “Don’t Fence Me In.” These are inspired Cavanagh moments. “Measure” could use more of them. The cast does its best with all of this: Matt Witten is Duke/Sheriff; Ray Boucher provides much fun as streetwise Pompey; Susan Drozd is lovely Isabella; Patrick Moltane, a conflicted Angelo. Plus Steve Petersen, Brian Zybala, Sheila Connors, Todd Fuller, Larry Smith, Geoff Pictor, Diane Curley and Zak Ward, excellent as conniver Lucio.
Director Cavanagh has said that “Measure for Measure” “doesn’t have a lot to it.” Not true. A sarcastic, maybe bitter Shakespeare has a lot to say about some serious topics and there are some beautiful passages. You’ll have to listen carefully to hear them amid drawl and twang. The play always needs to be tweaked, updated and adapted. But not damaged.
Norrie Epstein, a Bard researcher, once wrote that “With the possible exception of Jesus, Shakespeare has caused more foolishness and brilliance than any other human being.” Unfortunately, this cowpoke “Measure for Measure” is top-heavy on the former.