There is some uncanny and rather dismaying contemporary resonance in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, now playing at Baltimore’s Green Globe Theatre. The virginal Isabella (Grace O’Keefe), about to take her vows as a nun, pleads with Vienna’s moralistic acting ruler, Angelo (Linus T. Owens), for the life of her brother Claudio (Joe Sweeney), who Angelo has condemned to death for getting his fiancée Juliet (Daniela Hernandez-Fujigaki) pregnant. He’ll show Claudio mercy, Angelo says, only if Isabella agrees to have sex with him, violating her dearly-held vow of chastity. She protests, threatening to go public. Who will believe you against me, he asks? #MeToo, 1604 edition.
Claudio’s fate is the engine of the play’s plot, the central character of which is Duke Vincento (Rosie Crockett), Vienna’s actual ruler. Concerned that his benevolent rule has eroded adherence to the law, he places the rigorously strict Angelo in charge while he takes a sabbatical, disguised as Friar Lodowick, to observe the results.
From Haroun-al-Rashid in Tales of the Arabian Nights to a delegation gone wrong in the writings of Machiavelli to several plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – there are examples in many cultures – the disguised ruler motif has been a popular way for writers to explore the proper relationship between rulers and subjects. Having seen the punitive excess of Angelo’s regime, the duke, as the Friar, sets out to right the wrong and expose Angelo’s misconduct.
Crockett draws a subtle, but clear, distinction between her character’s two incarnations, often switching rapidly between the two, flipping her cape’s hood on or off to make the change visible. She emphasizes the duke’s gravitas through careful, deliberate line delivery and strong, upright posture. As the friar, her body language is less formal and more relaxed, and her speech is quicker and more improvisational in tone.
As plot complications multiply, the duke/friar needs to improvise, acting as a sometimes manipulative stage director of the machinations leading to the ultimate triumph of love and justice. Crockett also has fun with the duke’s increasing, comically effective exasperation at the garrulous, insulting fool Lucio (Jon Swift). Hers is an excellent performance in a challenging role.
O’Keefe’s Isabella is passionate throughout, whether in her devotion to her brother, her rebuke of Angelo’s impropriety, or her dedication to her chastity. Ice to her fire, Owens’ Angelo is all arrogant, self-serving calculation, until his final comeuppance. In the roles of the dutiful provost (i.e., jailer) and Mariana (Angelo’s jilted fiancée), Brandi Elizabeth Brown persuasively differentiates the two.
As the common bawd Pompey, Ari J. Eckly displays fluid, dance-like moves and a healthy disrespect for authority; as Friar Peter in the final scene, all is meekness and hesitancy of speech. Nicki Seibert, the stolid but observant staffer Escalus throughout most of the show, has a delightful moment as the criminal Barnardine, insisting that he is too drunk to be hanged. The entire cast deserves praise for its unfailingly clear delivery of Shakespeare’s words.
While Phillip Vannoorbeeck’s direction makes effective use of aisles for a number of scenes, his staging is sometimes static. This may be attributable, in part, to the physically constrained playing space available on the small proscenium stage, the central portion of which is occupied by a bulky set piece having a horizontal platform on top of a low-ceilinged jail cell, in which Claudio – sometimes joined by a musical instrument or two – crouches from time to time. Actors had to work around its periphery, resulting in numerous situations in which two or more actors needed to stand fast in one place for an exchange.
As a relatively new theater, Green Globe has limited technical resources. The production was done in modern dress, with a few nods to tradition such as Isabella’s nun habit and Friar Peter’s cassock. Consistent, perhaps, with its use of modern dress, the production was interrupted from time to time by actors singing modern folk or pop songs. While pleasantly sung, they added little to the evening but additional length. Lighting resources were also scarce, resulting in noticeable cold spots on the stage.
Community theaters are often timid about mounting Shakespeare, especially plays other than his greatest hits. Green Globe’s decision to present Measure for Measure, and the quality of much of the acting, is highly commendable. It’s a readily understandable, satisfying production of one of The Bard’s less familiar shows that is a hopeful sign for the company’s artistic future.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.
Measure for Measure plays through December 29 at Green Globe Theatre, performing at the Breath of God Lutheran Church, 141 South Clinton Street, in Baltimore MD. For tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org, purchase at the door, or go online.