“Comedy: love and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want,” Geoffrey Rush declares in Shakespeare in Love. Indeed, that’s what’s supplied in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which features the Bard’s only canine role. Still, the play has never shared the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies. Nor has Measure for Measure. Yet this summer the Independent Shakespeare Company is taking on these two lesser-known, less beloved plays, which also present some plot elements and character turns a modern audience may find problematic, or challenging, to say the least.
Measure for Measure opens at ISC’s free Griffith Park Festival on Saturday, June 24, followed by Two Gentlemen of Verona beginning Saturday, July 29.
“It is a slightly riskier season,” admits David Melville, managing director of the company, which has brought such staples as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth to Griffith Park in recent years.
It’s the first production of Measure for Measure for ISC, founded in 1998. The selection still follows the company's typical model for the festival: “We usually try to pick one crowd-pleasing comedy and then something slightly more challenging,” Melville says.Two Gentlemen has proved to be that crowd pleaser in the three times ISC has produced it.
Measure for Measure follows the novice nun Isabella as she pleads for the life of her brother, Claudio, when he is sentenced to death for impregnating his betrothed before they’ve married. A society that criminalizes cohabitation may sound distant and outdated for a modern production, but ISC’s promotional materials manage to frame it in a way audiences today may find relevant, describing Claudio as “a man whose only crime is love.”
Playing Isabella is Kalean Ung, whose past ISC roles include Viola and Desdemona.
“What’s really beautiful is I knew that Melissa [Chalsma, ISC’s artistic director] always wanted to play this role. And she never had, so when she [cast me as] Isabella, I was really touched,” Ung says. “I knew how special that was, and I was honored to be under her guidance and playing this beautiful role. Isabella is so complicated and interesting, and I’ve only scraped the surface.”
Chalsma says, “Isabella has a really subtle journey, which I think as an actor is very interesting and not that typical for Shakespeare heroines of that age. Because if you think about Viola or Rosalind, their sort of native quality is exuberance, and Isabella’s native quality is whatever the opposite of exuberance is. She’s somebody who has to parse through what it means to have a set of beliefs that are conflicting.”
Featuring a corrupt government, Measure for Measure appears to be getting staged more than usual this year across the country (including in Berkeley and Santa Cruz). “Even though it seems like perhaps one is picking it for sort of political reasons, we didn’t,” Chalsma notes, adding that ISC announces the following season’s lineup at the end of each summer festival, “so, at that time, we were still living in the happy possibility of our first female president instead of who we got.”
Husband-and-wife team Melville and Chalsma explained that they decided to tackle Measure for Measure simply because the company hadn’t done it before.
“For us, we’re not really interested in doing this if all we’re gonna be doing is the obvious [plays],” Melville said.
Among the challenges of tackling these two plays: Both depict attempted sexual assault, and their final scenes each leave a female lead silent for a long stretch of time when audiences — modern ones, at least — might expect these women to have something to say. William Elsman, who plays the corrupt, conflicted deputy Angelo in Measure for Measure, said he expects the production “to prompt a lot of discussion. Part of the ending is the question, would you be willing to forgive your attacker, your abuser, the person that assaulted you?”
Chalsma, directing Measure, and Melville, directing Two Gentlemen, in their regular practice of collaboration with their casts, did not begin work on this season with a solidified vision for their interpretation of the tricky ending of each play, allowing the ending to be discovered in rehearsal together with the actors.
While there are adult themes in each play, Chalsma noted that children are welcome at both shows. “We present all our plays as adult plays. It’s not children’s theater, but it’s family-friendly,” she said.
With a 1950s setting and a rockabilly band onstage — plus Chalsma and Melville’s dog, Pickles, expected to play Crab — ISC’s Two Gentlemen aims to be a lively romp. But the text of Measure for Measure serves up plenty of laughs, too, making frequent tonal shifts from darkly intense scenes to the farcical and silly.
“We’re going even broader and leaning more toward the comedic side, as things naturally tend toward in the park,” says Melville, who infused more comedy into his role as the Duke, taking inspiration from a Mark Rylance performance as the character in 2005 that he said was “a revelation to me.”
Admission to the festival is free, though the company solicits donations at each performance. The nonprofit received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts both this year and in 2016, though the majority of the festival’s budget comes from individual donations.
In addition to the plays, ISC’s Griffith Park Festival will host workshops and discussions led by the directors and cast members. The dates of these activities, along with directions to the festival’s site by the Old Zoo, can be found on ISC’s website.
And, yes, in Griffith Park Festival tradition, some audience members will find themselves led onstage by some of the plays’ goofiest characters, as ISC gets the crowds that come out to the park involved in the show.
Elsman noted the Globe Theatre, where many Shakespeare plays were first performed, “was designed for these plays to be audience-interactive. [Our audience] will experience that — they will take with us a trip to a very dark place, and they will take a hairpin turn and go to a farcical, wacky place. It’s just even more extreme and delightful explorations of the palette that Shakespeare provides, and that is the human experience.”
Independent Shakespeare Company Griffith Park Festival, Old Zoo, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Griffith Park; Measure for Measure, June 24-July 23; The Two Gentlemen of Verona, July 29-September 3. iscla.org.
Emily Rome has written for the Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, MentalFloss.com, HitFix, the Los Angeles Times and more. She is host of podcast Shakespeare’s Shadows.