‘Measure for Measure’ more than measures up to expectations
Cecelia Swartz | Friday, March 18, 2022
The Not-So-Royal Shakespeare Company (NSR) delivered a stunning, intense and thought-provoking performance of “Measure for Measure.”
The play, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, is often considered one of the bard’s problem plays because it does not fit into his usual genres of tragedy, history or comedy. The work covers tragic themes of sexual assault, abuse of power, manipulation, miscarriage of justice and religion. At the same time, however, there are many lighthearted moments of bawdy jokes and punny wordplay, creating constant tonal shifts that the company carefully managed.
NSR transitioned smoothly from humor to tragedy and back again. Mistress Overdone (Isabel Olesinski) pulling cigarette after cigarette out of her clothing and Pompey (Claire Early) pondering about prunes offered lighthearted, truly funny moments to the play. In contrast, Isabella (Cate Cappelmann) struggling between her religious convictions and her brother’s life and Angelo (Harrison Larkins) slowly descending into sin and temptation handled the darker themes of the work with true dramatic dexterity and acting worthy of any one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Cappelmann had literal tears running down her face in her captivating portrayal of a steadfast-yet-torn Isabella who remained firm in her commitment to her faith while struggling with questions of life, death and forgiveness. On the other hand, a running joke involving the Duke (Dominic Keene), Clark Kent glasses and a poor nearsighted Friar (Isaac Biese) created moments where I was laughing out loud. (Mind you, this was just after watching Isabella pour her heart out.) I have to give another mention to Olesinski, Early, Noah Sim as Elbow and Emily Hannon as Escalus — all actors in the prunes scene. It was fantastic.
I must also give a shoutout to Keene for playing a manipulative, despicable Duke that I hated by the end. He portrayed the character as a puppet master that enjoyed playing with the other characters’ emotions, a unique and fitting interpretation for the character. Larkins also made me hate Angelo, just slightly less than the Duke. At least Angelo felt guilty for his actions.
To accompany these tonal shifts, the characters singing “Lord Have Mercy” — as one would at mass — carried through the entire play, closing and opening scenes. Its utterances came in every tone from exasperation to desperation. It provided a grounding transition point for a complex work that otherwise runs the risk of becoming unwieldy. The cast, however, had no problems navigating the work and instead gave a rich performance with incredible depth.
In bringing the work to life, NSR found success with the costumes. The play was set in the 1980s, and the costumes for the more comedic characters reveled in the questionable fashion choices of the decade. They could not have looked better. While the more tragic characters had simpler costumes, they were full of meaning. Angelo’s costumes became increasingly red as he gave in to his temptations and guilt was a particularly noteworthy touch, reflecting the character’s interiority in the costuming.
The staging was also masterfully done. Two scenes involving Angelo and Isabella are perfect examples. When they first met and she pleaded for her brother’s life, she circled him out of agitation. In their next encounter, when he made demands of her, they switched, and he circled her like a predator. The play was replete with this precise attention to detail.
To put it bluntly, the play was impressive. NSR succeeded in tackling a beast of a narrative that is complex in plot, theme and tone. Nothing about “Measure by Measure” is easy or simple, and the company found the right balance for just about everything, making its many components fit together seamlessly. I was blown away by the collective talent of the production.
Title: “Measure for Measure”
Director: Alex Ford
Produced by: Not-So-Royal Shakespeare Company
Starring: Dominic Keene, Cate Cappelmann, Harrison Larkins
If you liked: “Taming of the Shrew,” “Much Ado About Nothing”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5