Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. I always took this personally since it happens to be a favorite of mine from his cannon. It turns out (amazing what a little research will do), that while this can be a reference to "problems" with the plays themselves (which was my assumption), it can also refer to the subject matter of the play.
The term was coined by critic F. S. Boas in Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1896) and according to Boas, Shakespeare's problem-plays set out to explore specific moral dilemmas and social problems through their central characters. “The situation faced by the protagonist is put forward by the author as a representative instance of a contemporary social problem.” He contends that the plays allow the reader to analyze complex and neglected topics. Rather than “arousing simple joy or pain,” the plays induce “engrossment and bewilderment.” This makes much more sense to me as Measure has always been a wonderful look at ethical compassion versus civic strictness and duty. It addresses many complicated issues that continue to plague us today, and makes it another of the Bard’s timeless morality lessons which abounds with said “engrossment and bewilderment.”
Theatre Unbound had some bad luck with the original script for their spring slot, but choosing to replace it with this problem-play, sadly, didn’t fix all their problems. I was lucky enough (after the fact) to talk with a cast member of TU’s current production of Measure for Measure, to get a clearer explanation of some frustratingly rough edges in the production I saw last Monday night.
Theatre Unbound; The Women’s Theatre, is in it’s 18th season and had originally planned to produce a brand new play to kick off 2018. Unfortunately, the new, contemporary piece, (which had been previously cast and was beginning a 3 week rehearsal process), remained unfinished and ultimately became unavailable to them. What to do!? I’m sure this was a huge shock and more than an inconvenience, as they now had a season slot to fill in merely a matter of weeks. I don’t envy any professional company such a predicament! My understanding is that the director had experience and adoration for Measure and that she and the company made the decision to utilize convenience of public domain, employ the cast they had promised parts to, and present Mr. Shakespeare’s play. I sincerely wish all of this had been explained to the audience!
Full transparency, I would have been more inclined to empathy and forgiveness knowing that actors and crew alike, had only two plus weeks and limited rehearsals to pull off this epic endeavor! Discovering on top of that, some actors had little to no Shakespeare experience, I was amazed at what they actually did pull off in such little time. And, although the unfortunate background of this production doesn’t necessarily excuse the dischord I experienced, it most certainly explains WHY it was there, and I am significantly more accepting of what everyone was trying to accomplish and what hurdles they were facing!.
The preshow music was jazzy and the white, gray set is a simple, purposefully dirty, yet generic, cityscape. Originally I thought these would be clues to the setting of the play and the where and the why, but these, plus costumes running the gamut from modified doublets and tunics- to 70’s style suits and hairpieces- to a cell phone produced selfie, left me confused. Blocking was an issue. Many of the actors were delivering entire speeches upstage and I was left trying to hear and understand plot points, while looking at people’s backs. Sound was on a loop, that unfortunately was from a speaker directly over my head, so I became preoccupied with faint footsteps and crows noises rolling over and over again. There was a lot of searching for and stumbling over lines and there is nothing worse (to me) than being nervous for an actor, not the character, on stage. It’s downright scary wondering if they’ll be able to find the line and continue with the show. This happened more than once. Though these are examples of some of my biggest frustrations, they are all things made more forgivable knowing it had been put up so quickly.
There were some really wonderful aspects that also deserve recognition. First and foremost, the remarkable Meri Golden as the noxious LUCIO. The fur collar clad, mullet sporting Golden plays a delightful wretch who relished making everyone squeamish with her bawdy talk. Ever the opportunist, the character breathes life and energy into the production every time she steps on stage. She is clearly a well trained classical actor with an easy handle of the text and a simple yet clever slant on the character. A very successful cross casting of a base and lecherous role. Actors Ashe Jaafaru, Nicole Goeden, Stephanie Ruas, and Samantha Joy Singh join her with a clear and competent command of the language and they are immensely helpful in bolstering the complex storytelling.
Shakespeare is tough, even for those who’ve studied it for years. It is my opinion the play didn’t have the time and, maybe the players, to be fully realized. It was an admirable job but ultimately came off unfinished. I don’t have a lot of personal experience with Theatre Unbound, but they have a wonderful reputation and are committed to “delivering thought-provoking live theatre conceived and created by women” which I wholeheartedly commend I think perhaps in this instance, the decision to fully produce the whole play was well intentioned but unsuccessful. Considering the constraints, had they chosen scenes, (even scenes from different Shakespeare shows that highlighted the cast they had in place), perhaps presented as a workshop or even a work in progress, they would have thwarted this particular outcome.
As it stands you have people still struggling with lines, not understanding the language or the characters, and sometimes even the arch of the play. Now, this show has had a week plus to settle in and as always I encourage people to make up their own minds. There is one more weekend to catch this production at the new Gremlin Theatre Space in St. Paul. Measure for Measure remains one of my all time favorite problem-plays and is a very timely story with many life lessons to continue exploring.