By Kim Jackson
Nearly 400 years later, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure explores the complicated mixture of power, justice and the role of women in society. As with any number of Shakespeare’s plays and the timely relevance of the subject, in this case through the lens of the #MeToo movement, one might wonder if Shakespeare isn’t really a time-traveling Dr. Who.
With Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” director Rebecca Blum challenges the audience to confront the predicament of women in a society that believes it can control morality as well as women’s bodies. This perspective is highlighted by Elizabeth Newton’s brilliant split set design with the government locale on one side of the stage and a graffiti-strewn wall serving as a backdrop to the village brothel at the other. The audience is positioned on the sidelines, akin to a sporting event, a subtle and effective reminder that the audience is a mere spectator watching strategies being played out on stage.
The plot centers around the interaction between Angelo, a government official left in charge of enforcing Vienna’s strict moral code (mostly ignored over the past 19 years), and Isabella, a young woman about to enter a convent. Angelo has arrested Isabella’s brother Claudio who will be executed for impregnating his betrothed, Juliet before marriage. When Isabella pleads for her brother’s life, Angelo assaults her verbally and physically. She threatens to expose him, but who will believe her since he is powerful and has an unblemished reputation? After all, it is Isabella that unleashed the sensual nature he has kept in check. Even her brother, Claudio, ultimately betrays her, noting her sin would not be as bad as death.
As Isabella, Rosemary Richards captures the growing, desperate frustration of a woman who knows what is morally right and has been compromised by those she thought she could trust. Wade Newhouse accurately delivers the cold, passionless, restraint of Angelo, portraying him as a man who deludes himself that he upholds the high moral ground. As Lucio, Claudio’s mischievous friend, Benjamin Tarlton delivers a highly entertaining performance, and Laura J. Parker’s Elbow provides ample servings of broad humor, much needed comic relief in a play that offers up a very uncomfortable view of events that feel ripped from today’s headlines.
In addition to the adult cast, there is a small ensemble of kids in this production. Blum’s creative decision to incorporate children into the show is a haunting reminder that the young are always watching, absorbing and keenly aware of what the adults are doing around them.
Although this play is not considered a tragedy, the ending is just complicated enough to raise more questions. The final moments of the play give hope that the newborn daughter of Claudio and Juliet will have a better fate and that the cycle of power and abuse has been broken. Perhaps bearing witness to these proceedings, the audience too will move from the sidelines and put a stop to the vicious cycle of abuse and demeaning behavior still plaguing our society 400 years later.
Measure for Measure runs through January 27th at Raleigh Little Theatre. For more information visit: https://raleighlittletheatre.org/.