|Measure for Measure at the Lantern Theater Company
posted by Ralph Malachowski on Apr 4, 2019 10:30am | comments
Shakespeare’s late comedy, Measure for Measure, is now being presented by Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater until April 21.
William Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure in 1603, a turbulent time in English history. The great reign of Elizabeth I was over; the Scottish King, James VI, was now also James I of England. Shakespeare wisely set Measure for Measure in Catholic Vienna, not in the past, or the future, but in their present day, and removed the plot away from England so as to better criticize a Catholic country ruled by a Catholic Duke under a Catholic Emperor. England had already been torn by religious strife over Catholicism and Protestantism during Elizabeth’s reign, and now with James the Sixth and First ascending to rule, he of Protestant Scotland, religion was the hottest topic of the day.
Measure for Measure begins with a bookish prince who delegates his authority to his two trusted ministers who have neither the desire nor the experience to rule. He has been lax in enforcing the rules of the land. One minister rules wisely and with mercy, while the other does not, which, of course, makes for the more fascinating story. Shakespeare chooses to home in on sexuality: pre-marital sex; what we today would call sex workers; and the whole notion of what constitutes marriage, legally and religiously. One minister sentences a noble man to death for having sex with his fiancée (in England, she would already be considered his wife), which brings his sister, a novice to the cloistered life, into the story through the agency of a renowned pimp. What happens in Measure for Measure is the stuff of blistering social commentary safely removed from England.
In Shakespeare’s day, rulers were considered to be a special breed, akin to Biblical prophets, who were blessed by God with wisdom and Divine grace. As with King Lear, we see what happens when a negligent ruler cedes his duty, or The Tempest, where a book-loving prince is overthrown. In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare cleverly interrogates power, Catholicism, and the law, laying bare human foibles in the process. He attacks Draconian adherence to the letter of the law, the hypocrisy of religion (especially Catholicism), the necessity of sex and how it is by no means unimportant, slyly informing us that anything forbidden is twice as delectable.
Charles McMahon, the Artistic Director, directed a fine cast drawn from Philadelphia’s acting community. The eight cast members doubled as ensemble actors as well as assuming principal roles. Chris Anthony played the unfortunate Claudio, sentenced to death. The two ministers, one wise, and one sinister, were finely played by Kirk Wendell Brown as Escalus and Ben Dibble as Angelo. Adam Hammet played Pompey with gusto, celebrating and relishing his character’s wisdom of human nature and its inherent silliness. Claire Inie-Richards as Isabella was the pivotal character whose integrity, intelligence, rhetorical proficiency, and honesty beguiled all in her path. Anthony Lawton expertly played the foolish Duke. Jared McLenigan was Lucio, the principal pimp and engine of comedy and wit indispensable to the play, while Charlotte Northeast reveled in the role of Mistress Overdrive, arguably the smartest shady lady of Vienna, while alternating among dissimilar roles requiring many quick costume and character changes.
Measure for Measure is a rare treat: a thought piece addressing so many important topics all sharply and wittily seen through a master’s sense of the ridiculousness of human frailty. It only skips a beat at the play’s very end, when the director chooses to end the play with an unwritten and anachronistic trick which insults the audience’s intelligence. By all means, see the rarely-seen masterpiece Measure for Measure.
Measure for Measure is at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107, performed by the Lantern Theater Company until April 21. For information and tickets visit www.lanterntheater.org .