By half measure, full measure—actually, by virtually any measure—Measure for Measure as produced by the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival is a triumphant excavation of one of the bard’s less-produced works that here proves itself to be just as engrossing as his most popular ones.
Those who are unfamiliar with the show may want to consult at least a summary beforehand to help make up the distance of the 17th century language, or, as I did, to skim through the script beforehand so as to develop a kind of road map for the events that will unfold. However, combined with crisp direction by Trent Stephens and the cast’s energetic performances, I imagine the fairly straightforward story is likely comprehensible to seasoned Shakespeare fans and newcomers alike.
Anyone who might’ve had the idea that Shakespeare can’t be sexy will also be proven wrong by the focus of said story as well as by the mood of this production, which, in changing a few words, transposes the play’s setting from an old-time Vienna to a modern-ish day New Orleans. An opening musical sequence establishes this setting and a jovial mood instantly, with some of the cast even dancing into the audience and passing out plastic beads.
Along with providing the occasion for a few of the actors to enliven their characters with entertaining southern accents, this choice also allowed another rollicking musical number to play out in Act 2 featuring a few of the play’s prisoners. It also inspired a festive array of costumes designed by Penny Williams to animate the proceedings, from brothel owner Mistress Overdone flapper-like ensemble to a bowler hat and pinstripe suit that made for a Lucio who looked as if he might’ve escaped from Guys and Dolls.
As in the more widely known Romeo and Juliet, forbidden desire is the engine that drives much of Measure For Measure’s plot; but this time around, lust is something that has somewhat more mature consequences. Before the play begins, the character Claudio has impregnated his own Juliet in an out-of-wedlock affair, though the two now intend to marry as soon as circumstances allow. But harsh judge Angelo, who the more moderate Duke Vincentio has left in charge in his absence, finds in an outdated law justification to condemn Claudio to death for this all too human “crime.”
Caroline Dopson as Isabella and Darryl Willis as The Duke in Measure for Measure
Said “crime,” an act of consensual passion that only becomes one in the eyes of a flawed and puritanical system, is contrasted with the truly sinister lechery of Angelo himself. After Claudio’s sister Isabella, a beautiful and virtuous maid who aspires to commit herself to a holy life of chastity, comes before the judge to plead for her brothers’ life, he has a lewd proposition for her the parameters of which are all too unsurprising—he will only spare Claudio if she will lie with him. Relevant as this plot line may appear in 2023, it seems that neither hypocrisy of scheming politicians nor the propensity of powerful men to abuse their authority to ensure their own erotic satisfaction are particularly modern developments.
Meanwhile, the mechanisms by which Isabella seeks to save her brother without compromising her integrity comprise most of the rest of the show. And though I won’t give away the ending, this “problem play” is more comedy than tragedy in that the villains get their comeuppance and the deserving their happy ends.
As is par for the Shakespearean course, there’s plenty of memorable poetry in the mix, and the unexpected path the story takes is a mightily engaging one; both the show’s longer first act and swifter second one seemed as if they flew by. Led by Darryl Willis as a smooth-talking duke, Alex Gomez as the smarmy Angelo, and Caroline Dopson as the principled Isabella, the cast certainly plays a major part in making the action so watchable, and in the show’s overall success. Gomez’s skill was especially noticeable in one intense soliloquy in which the character battles with himself over whether or not to act on his immoral inclinations.