Early in Measure for Measure, the wise lord Escalus says, "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall," a miscarriage of justice that is at the forefront of Shakespeare's infrequently produced comedy. While some of Shakespeare's characters here are sinful while others virtuous and even more are somewhere in between, St. Edward's University current production of Measure for Measure has virtues by the score, and thankfully those virtues make the play rise rather than fall.
The story concerns a hypocritical and tyrannical judge, Angelo, who condemns a young man, Claudio, to death for impregnating his common-law wife. When Angelo meets Claudio's sister, the young nun Isabella, he tells her that Claudio will be spared if she sleeps with him (By the way, isn't it nice to know we've moved past a time where politicians use their power to fuel their carnal desires?). The virtuous and cunning Isabella then concocts a plan with Friar Lodowick, really the Duke Vincentio in disguise, to expose the evildoings of Angelo.
Measure for Measure is by many accounts one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The social/political satire is classified as a comedy, though the tone in many scenes is incredibly dark, and its happy ending seems awkward and forced. In addition, many of the characters and situations feel somewhat underdeveloped. For example, Shakespeare's text doesn't allow Angelo to be quite as dangerous or evil as he should be. After all, he tries to basically rape a nun. People don't get more evil, unsympathetic, and sacrilegious than that. Still, Angelo is a puppy dog compared to the likes of the great Shakespeare villains like Richard III and Lady Macbeth.
It is these problems and issues that make many directors and actors steer clear of Measure for Measure, but it is nice to see St. Edward's University courageously take the play on. Under the direction of Michelle S. Polgar, the cast and crew doesn't try to solve any of the play's problems or turn it into anything it's not. Instead, they let it just play out as it is, and in the process they uncover some dark dramatic moments, some hysterically funny comedic moments, and a compelling satire about justice and power.
Polgar and her design team keep the look and feel of Measure for Measure simple and understated but beautiful and lush, allowing the characters and Shakespearian language to take center stage. Lisa Laratta's set is stunning in its minimalism. With a blue-painted stage, a few tables, chairs, and benches, and a woven crepe paper pattern on the ceiling, Laratta's set is modest and uncomplicated but delightful and expressive. The choice to have the crepe paper ceiling slowly fall apart and decay as the Claudio's execution draws nearer and the stakes get higher is a wonderful visual metaphor. Kathryn Eader's lighting design of blues and other cool colors compliments Laratta's set brilliantly, and the costumes by Buffy Manners, which borrow from a variety of time periods and locations, are all exquisitely tailored and add to the idea that such an abuse of justice could happen anywhere and in any time.
And like most shows at St. Edward's University, the cast here is second to none. While many actors, professional and amateur, are intimidated by the complexities of Shakespeare's words, any anxiety felt by this cast doesn't come across whatsoever. They speak Shakespeare's text as if it was modern English, and their comfort and no-nonsense approach makes the play and the characters much easier to understand.
Of the students in the cast, there are a few notable highlights. Tyler Mount is a riot as the clownish Pompey, one of the few lighthearted characters in this dark comedy. His facial expressions are playful and infectious. As Lucio, the boldly dressed fop, Curtis Allmon displays his strong comedic timing, and as a side note, I want his pink shoes. And as Isabella, Hanna Marie Fonder proves to be a fantastic heroine. She is strong-willed and smart and unwavering in her protection of both her virtue and the life of her brother. All told, the student cast members all rise to the occasion of both Shakespeare's play, and they are just as good as their professional counterparts who share the stage with them.
All three professional actors in this production are stellar as well. David Stahl brings a wisdom and kindness to Escalus. Jeremy Lee Cudd plays Angelo as a man who will do anything to get what he wants. He is steadfast in his resolve to execute Claudio and to take Isabella's virginity, and his scenes with her are appropriately creepy. Greg Holt's take on the Duke, though, slightly eclipses the rest. There's something about his performance as the hero and male moral compass of the play that mesmerizes the audience. Whether he's in a dramatic or comedic scene, Holt excels with ease.