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Problem production tackled head on

August 15, 2013
Measure for Measure

Shakespeare's troubling late comedy "Measure for Measure," offered at Stratford this summer, is often described as a problem play. Intended as a comedy its main messages are man's perversity when it comes to sexual affairs, and the bewitching appeal of innocence and purity to certain Lotharios.

Director Martha Henry with an impressive cast and production crew have met the issues head on in a provocative entertainment.

The play is set in a city plagued by corruption and social crimes. In this arena, Isabella (Carmen Grant) is interrupted in taking her vows as a nun to plead for the life of her brother, Claudio (Christopher Prentice). He dallied with his fiancée and got her with child before they could be married. The penalty is death.

At that time, the Duke ruling the city (Geraint Wyn Davies) announces departure on a mysterious trip and leaves his assistant Angelo (Tom Rooney) to administer justice. That seems to include putting brother Claudio to death and subduing all the tawdry corruption in the city that comes to light.

Directors are drawn to the play, which some call a masterpiece of nihilism. This is even echoed by Isabella as a righteous figure in a city of double-dealers. She pleads with quiet passion that mercy is vital to the execution of justice in her debate with her brother.

Bringing this plea to Angelo, however, gets a disturbing response. Aroused by her purity, Angelo will arrange Claudio's pardon in exchange for a night with Isabella. An unfamiliar friar then appears to offer aid in the face of her brother's urging to accept Angelo's offer to save his life.

Meanwhile members of the city's low life take more indulgent stands. Small fry pimp, Pompey (Randy Hughson) is deliciously cynical and duplicitous. Gaudily dressed Mistress Overdone (Patricia Collins) complains of the threats to her profession. Claudio's friend Lucio, played brilliantly as an outrageous libertine by Stephen Ouimette, coaches Isabella in a tragically funny interview with Angelo. Claudio sees his doom as sealed.

In spite of the dark nature of the play there are devices of Elizabethan comedy that often seem awkward today. A major actor appears in disguise. A lowly jailor named Elbow (Brian Tree) plays word games with amusing malaprops as he officiates in the jail. In a "bed trick," one woman is substituted for another in the dark as a device pivotal to the plot. There are more, all well executed. While some modern audiences seem to find them contrived they remain effective and highly appropriate. Brian Tree's clowning is always a welcome diversion.

Not withstanding the darkness, however, lights come on one by one for a finale of Shakespearean comedic proportions. The Duke reappears in full knowledge of the goings on, couples who have sinned are sentenced to marriage and the city is on the road to recovery, not to mention a few more delightful disclosures. The Elizabethan audience apparently liked a little shock with their comedy, as do some of us.

"Measure for Measure" is presented in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre through Sept. 21. For more information and reservations call 800-567-1600 or visit shakespearefestival.ca.

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