Immorality Play

Photo by John TramperFor the first time since its triumphant production of Twelfth Night two seasons ago, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London is back at UCLA with a must-see staging of Measure for Measure that wanders into a modern interpretation, despite the company’s trademark respect for tradition. Mark Rylance, the Globe’s artistic director and star, plays Duke Vincentio in an enchanting, chin-scratching, befuddled interpretation that has words slipping from speeches like sardines through a hole in a net, that is until Rylance gazes up and finds the wherewithal to adjust the netting and pull the speech back together. And so the man is engaged in a constant struggle to finish his sentences, as though caught in the crossfire between lucidity and oblivion. The performance is so marbled with humor and pathos, it turns Duke Vincentio into the play’s central character, rather than the duke’s demonic deputy, Angelo — played by Liam Brennan with the monochromatic, steely resolve of some Scottish Calvinist.At play’s start, the duke expresses concern that he’s allowed immorality to push too far beyond the laws regulating it. To solve the problem, he announces his departure from Vienna, turning over the reins of power to stern Angelo, whose first act as moral enforcer is to order the execution of one Claudio (David Sturzaker) for fornicating out of wedlock. (This crime, or sin, is one that Angelo had also committed.) By our standards, and probably Elizabethan standards as well (given the play’s sympathies), Angelo’s order to hang Claudio is excessive, particularly since Claudio is so devoted to his pregnant girlfriend (David Hartley — all roles are played by men, as in Elizabethan tradition), as is she to him. And the only reason they haven’t yet wed has to do with a dowry. To read Steven Leigh Morris' accompanying story "Who's That Bard?" click here. Compounding Angelo’s hypocrisy is his sexual harassment of Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Edward Hogg) — a nun, no less — with whom he barters to exchange her sexual favors for Claudio’s freedom. Meanwhile, Duke Vincentio observes his deputy’s shenanigans while disguised as a friar and, as that friar, intervenes to set wrongs right. The play is a comedy, albeit a macabre and often terrifying one, and the clash of styles between the macabre, the farce and the fury at Angelo’s spiteful duplicity render Measure for Measure a more than 400-year-old headache for any self-respecting director. John Dove, here named “Master of Play” in the company’s “original practices” nomenclature (the directing profession wasn’t legitimated in the 16th century), sets a giddy tone early: Along with the vivacious live musical accompaniment on period instruments and Jennifer Tiramani’s ravishing Elizabethan costumes, the shackled prisoner Claudio enters doing a jig with his guards. That doesn’t solve the problem of clashing styles, but it does at least temper how the unfolding horrors of Angelo’s Richard III–like tyranny melt into the kind of happy resolution that recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Amid exquisite craftsmanship, the production’s most notable aspect is its stateliness, despite flourishes of levity. In the 90-minute first half, I didn’t see anybody running. (Later, with the threat of heads rolling, Dove allowed a few mad dashes across the stage.) In the scenes where Hogg’s stoic Isabella, all rectitude and ice, implored Angelo for her brother’s life, the conflict was like that between two cougars slowly circling, spines erect, softly hissing at each other with eloquent speeches. Hanging above them were a hundred flickering flames from half a dozen chandeliers. I imagined, for a moment, that I was in church, or heaven. I don’t know what this play means to the British in the 21st century beyond some generalized cautionary tale of zealous piety, but here it speaks to a considerably more literal, American circumstance. No, it’s not about the hypocrisy of war-dodging leaders sending other people’s children into battle on the cheap, then crowing about patriotism. Angelo’s hypocrisy is more specific — that of executing a man for a crime that Angelo himself had committed. We’ve seen waves of such twisted malice both in the White House and across the nation, committed by the so-called gay Republican mafia, who vociferously oppose civil rights for gay people, which includes: Armstrong Williams, the syndicated gay-bashing columnist, and former CNN contributor, who was forced to settle a gay sex harassment suit for an undisclosed sum; San Gabriel Valley Congressman David Dreier, who votes consistently against gay rights; Jeff Guckert, a.k.a. James Gannon, the bogus “journalist” and gay prostitute who trumpeted the White House agenda; and now, bringing back memories of Roy Cohn, speculation is swirling around Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee who ran George W. Bush’s 2004 election campaign on an anti-gay platform, and Karl Rove, who, if you believe the Internet chatter, was recently sighted entering a leather boys’ orgy at a five-star Washington, D.C., hotel.With no motive other than historical veracity, Dove’s production hits this nail on the head: Here’s brooding Angelo fondling Isabella-in-drag under the cloak of authority, while her brother’s life hangs in the balance. Maybe it’s just the sight of all those men with power wearing billowy black pantaloons. On Angelo’s, white devil’s pitchforks are stitched into the sides. You can see them in the scene before he gets caught and sentenced.Rove should have such luck. MEASURE FOR MEASURE by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE THEATRE OF LONDON and UCLA LIVE INTERNATIONAL THEATER FESTIVAL | At UCLA, FREUD PLAYHOUSE | Thru Nov. 26 | (310) 825-2101 or


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