Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, the echo of live piano and accordion in Keck Theater paired with elaborate cobblestone buildings, ostentatious Victorian costumes and stage makeup transport the audience two centuries into the past for three hours of Elizabethan drama.
Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”, directed by theater department chair John Bouchard, opened in Keck Theater April 15. The play was originally published alongside Shakespeare’s comedies in “First Folio” of 1623 and recounts the story of a duke who temporarily hands over the administration of Vienna to an austere magistrate, Lord Angelo, and goes undercover as a friar to watch Vienna’s moral integrity unravel in his absence. The staging of this tale of adultery and punishment is the product of the cast and crew’s semester-long effort to deliver Shakespeare’s language with such physicality and raw emotion that even audience members who are not familiar with Shakespearean prose can appreciate the drama from the edge of their seats.
Bouchard set the play in 1800s, but Declan Meagher (senior), who plays the Duke, said that “Measure for Measure” exemplifies the eternal relevance of Shakespeare’s writing.
“Shakespeare’s plays are stories that transcend time and place because they are about people,” Meagher said via email. “The language may be weird but what they are saying and how they are acting is so deeply ingrained in us as humans that we cannot help but to understand and connect with the situations and characters in his story.”
In “Measure for Measure”, 1880 Vienna is facing a moral crisis, demonstrated by the opening scene, absent of dialogue but bustling with “sinners” entering and exiting a brothel.
“Vienna is becoming a hedonistic society — it’s overrun by prostitution, sex out of wedlock, and [the Duke] feels like it’s getting out of control,” actress Grace West (senior), who plays Isabella, said.
Will Westwater (senior) took a 180 degree turn from his normally friendly demeanor to play Angelo as a malicious antagonist for his senior comprehensive project.
Westwater said his severe character strives to set an example for the Viennese citizens by condemning Claudio, played by Rhys Hyatt (junior), to death for committing adultery with Juliet, played by Kylie Brakeman (sophomore), by sleeping with her before they were officially married. When Isabella, Claudio’s sister, importunes Angelo for Claudio’s life, Angelo gives her an ultimatum: He will spare Claudio only if Isabella, soon to be a nun, has sex with Angelo.
The tale unfolds in the Shakespearean fashion rich with deceit, sex and death. In the center is Isabella and the conflict she faces in choosing between maintaining her moral and spiritual integrity by remaining a virgin and giving in to save the life of her beloved brother.
Within the heated and heart-wrenching scenes are sparks of humor delivered by characters such as the dopey constable played by Nick Justice (junior), various brief roles played by Greg Feiner*, and Lucia, played by Amanda Wagner (senior) who managed to maintain a Czech accent while articulating the complicated Shakespearean prose.
Raunchy and tense scenes, such as Angelo’s sexual assault of Isabella, play out on a thrust stage just feet in front of the audience. West said that the actors’ close proximity to the audience is meant to increase the intimacy of the performance.
“It is definitely uncomfortable sometimes,” West said. “It’s exciting.”
With dialogue that continually swings between comedic and dark, “Measure for Measure” is regarded as one of the Bard’s “problem plays”.
“It’s not a comedy, it’s not a tragedy, but it ends with a wedding,” Westwater said. “It left some people who watched the runs so far go, ‘How am I supposed to feel at the end?’”
Bouchard, who studied Shakespeare at Rice University, sees more than just thematic problems in the published play. According to West, Bouchard believes “Measure for Measure” is merely a rough draft. He points to various conflicting moments in the script, such as stage directions for characters who already exited the stage and the undeveloped character of the Duke. Bouchard rewrote parts of the play to ultimately create an even better version, West said.
Rehearsing for up to five hours each night five days a week since the first week of the semester, the cast of “Measure for Measure” worked diligently to fully decipher the motives of their characters.
According to West and Westwater, Meagher had the toughest character to interpret.
“In terms of Shakespeare’s writing, the Duke is not very well-written,” Meagher said. “He is very wordy, often sounding pompous in his language which can lead to very confusing or undesirable/unsympathetic portrayals of the Duke.”
According to Meagher, one of the Duke’s few consistencies is his way of always being a step or two ahead of the other characters. Otherwise, his motives are a rollercoaster of many twists and turns.
“I had to roll with the punches that John threw at me as we tried, together, to figure this guy out,” Meagher said.
Angelo, on the other hand, is quite transparent in his motives, Westwater said. Even so, Westwater found it difficult to act out such a twisted character. He found himself constantly shifting between playing a man with faltering morals and acting as a full-fledged evil villain. Since he is normally cast as the charismatic lead — such as the charming bachelor in Occidental’s production of the “Drowsy Chaperone” last fall, Westwater had to do some soul-searching to figure out how to channel Angelo’s appalling qualities realistically.
“You have to access some serious dark parts, grow a goatee and see what happens,” Westwater said. “It’s kind of fun.”
Mastering Shakespeare allows for much more than a convincing performance for Westwater and West. Westwater said he gets a rush once he begins to connect with his character and West said that mastering her role helped her become a better actor overall. They both said that once they understood their role well enough, they found themselves analyzing real world situations in their characters’ mindsets. By dedicating so much effort to picking at the brains of their characters, they said that acting challenges them to develop deeper insight about their own minds.
“Once you get all the physicality and language, then you have what is called sideways thoughts as your character that you can let permeate your brain,” Westwater said. “And that’s brilliant.”
Since playgoers do not get an entire semester to try to break down the characters’ motives and plot of “Measure for Measure”, the actors suggest reading a summary before watching the play.
Meagher highlights Shakespeare’s emphasis on the importance of compassion — especially that of the Duke, who recognizes humans are flawed and possesses feelings that may conflict with laws. This contrasts with Angelo’s hypocritical devotion to the belief that the world will operate as a perfect machine if every person adheres to the same legislative and moral code.
“Shakespeare wants us to question these people that hold everyone to the same compass regardless of place, status, or profession,” Meagher said. “In a world that is increasingly fraught with problems (as the world almost always is) there is a sense that stricter laws, firmer morals and less compassion for the individual should be the way to ensure equality in the eyes of the law, but “Measure For Measure” shows that sometimes what the law determines is not the full story.”
To err is human nature, not usually lack of respect for the law, Meagher said.
Westwater said that even if the audience does not completely understand the storyline but can believe in what they see happening on stage is real to the characters, then the cast did their job.
With four remaining shows running April 22–24 and May 14, the cast is eager to play before large audiences.
“Netflix will always be there — go see theater.” Westwater said.
*Feiner is a Weekly staff member.