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The Shakespeare Theatre's 1992 Measure For Measure
Miranda Johnson-Haddad

(A version of this review appeared in the Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 455-72)

Michael Kahn and the company seemed to revel in the very complexities that intimidate less skillful directors and actors. The result was a provocative and intriguing production that forced us to confront directly the play's most disturbing implications while providing us with a hopeful ending that offered passion and romance.

For Measure for Measure the stage curtain was raised from the beginning, and as the audience took their seats, they were able to observe the somber set. Here all we could see were grim and forbidding black walls with door openings that seemed to lead into darkness. Above was a catwalk, bordered by metal banisters and ending in a flight of institutional metal stairs that led still farther upwards. The set slid together and bars descended over the door openings to create the prison and then slid apart, bars disappearing, to create the Duke's office or the atrium where Mariana listened to "Take, 0 take those lips away."

The opening scene featured an antique chair and table, on which were set various pens and papers as well as a crystal decanter of red wine and two glasses. On the catwalk above was displayed Jean-Leon Gerome's nineteenth-century painting of Pygmalion embracing the magnificent nude figure of Galatea at the moment the statue comes to life. Downstage left, two side chairs were drawn together as if inviting friendly conference. This scene presented the Duke's office, After the house lights went down, a single stark spotlight lit the Duke as he sat signing papers. Offstage a clock chimed discreetly, and although the setting for this production was nineteen-twenties Vienna, this opening scene also suggested to me an atmosphere of vaguely Edwardian elegance. Later, after Angelo became duke, the decanter of wine was replaced by a utilitarian pitcher of ice water, the two side chairs were removed, and the painting was covered up by a black drape. Even before these changes, however, the opening scene with the Duke, one had the ominous sense that some oppressive force was at work here, looming over the characters and influencing their actions.

In a startling contrast, the following scene was set in a decadent, flashy, noisy Mistress Overdone's that was reminiscent of the movie Cabaret. Two male transvestites sequined flapper dresses danced a flirtatious jitterbug, while soldiers and prostitutes cavorted, and couples in every possible gender combination danced or fondled each other in the dim recesses of the brothel. Mistress Overdone was a large, frowzy-looking woman with a blond beehive hairdo and a red velvet robe trimmed with black feathers. (She was later revealed as a man in drag.) The scene concluded with a brutal raid by armed officers of the new order, who rounded up the customers and prostitutes and hustled them off to jail. There followed immediately a street scene in which Claudio and Juliet were publicly arrested by another group of officers while news photographers snapped flashbulbs and shocked pedestrians read the flyers that were being dropped from above, which presumably described the reinstituting of the neglected old laws.

Duke Vincentio's Vienna reflected the influence of the artistic movement known as German Expressionism. (The program notes reminded us that in the thirties the Nazis would attempt to repress this art as decadent, and the Viennese state under Angelo clearly recalled the Nazis' rise to power.) Angelo delivered the opening lines of Act 2 ("We must not make a scarecrow of the law") into a round, thirties-style microphone suspended from above as he stood on the catwalk, and we could hear the sounds of offstage cheers and applause. Previously, in 1.1, when the Duke delegated his office, Angelo appeared reluctant to assume power, entering the Duke's presence in his shirtsleeves and hastily pulling on his suitjacket, as if he had been hard at work at his desk, seeming to be a quiet and repressed individual who, like Vincentio, would prefer not to "stage" himself to the people's eyes. In this production, when Vincentio observed that "Nor do I think the man of safe discretion / That does affect it," he allowed his gaze to linger on Angelo with a suggestiveness that seemed misdirected, given the somewhat reclusive air that Angelo was projecting. Nevertheless, the Duke's concerns were vindicated by the sight of Angelo in front of that microphone addressing himself to the "loud applause and aves vehement" of the crowd. "A little brief authority" had clearly transformed Angelo from a rigid and self-righteous individual into a dangerous dictator.

The three principals gave excellent performances and managed to convey the many subtleties and contradictions within his or her character. As Angelo, Philip Goodwin expressed not only the character's rigidity and repression but also the power and force of the emotions that he was repressing. With his buzz haircut, wire-rimmed glasses, and stiff demeanor, he seemed the epitome of a passionless intellectual, incapable of feeling empathy for another's situation. His lust, once aroused, cometely overwhelmed him; he did indeed "give [his] sensual race the rein." In his confrontation with Isabella in 2.4, he ripped off her wimple and veil and flung her across his desk while he leaned over her, pinning her arms as if immediately to overcome her. Later, in 3.2, we were provided with another powerful image of Angelo unleashing his own passions. The scene took place in the prison, and the prisoners in their cells began to bang their cups on the bars in rhythm to the Duke's chant ("So disguise shall by the disguised / Pay with falsehood false exacting, / And perform an old contracting"). The guards rushed forward and used their nightsticks against the bars of the cells to beat the prisoners back, as above a spotlight picked out Angelo, in his undershirt with his suspenders loosened. With a sudden violent movement, Angelo ripped away the drape that had been covering the painting of Galatea coming to life, and the lights went down. The juxtaposition of these images, Angelo's repressive rule and of his utter lack of self-regulation was haunting.

In 5.1, when confronted by Isabella's accusations, Angelo held himself with his accustomed rigid dignity, yet actor Goodwin also managed to suggest that Angelo's heart was beating rapidly underneath his somber gray suit. When the Duke revealed himself and Angelo realized that he had been exposed, his body seemed to collapse from within. He appeared dazed as he shuffled off after the Friar in helpless misery to be married to Mariana. He accepted the Duke's death sentence without flinching, as if he truly welcomed it, and he seemed too bewildered to perceive fully the nature Isabella's sacrifice in pleading for him. Once forgiven by the Duke, however, he knelt before him and seized and fervently kissed the Duke's hand. He exited slowly with Mariana in agonized dejection; but when Mariana, who had been looking back wistfully at the Duke and Isabella, reached tentatively for Angelo's hand, he slowly put his arm around her, and they walked off. There was hope, after all, for his redemption.

Keith Baxter was outstanding as the enigmatic Vincentio, portraying the Duke as not only thoughtful and complex but also as full of warmth and humor. In the opening scene of this production, the Duke slowly sipped a glass of wine and appeared lost in contemplation; his decision had not been an easy one to make. Once he stepped down from office, he seemed to shed an immense psychological burden. In 1.3 he entered toweling his face, having just shaved off his beard, and, as he spoke to the Friar, a new lightheartedness seemed to emerge. As the play went on, it was increasingly easy to believe that this Duke had found it very difficult to enforce the strict laws of Vienna; it was also clear that he cared deeply about the people and their opinion of him. Lucio's jibes about the "old fantastical. Duke of dark corners" in 3.2 and 4.3 clearly hurt as well as annoyed him, and when he subsequently questioned Escalus about the Duke, his initial anxiety and then his relief at Escalus's favorable replies were touching.

In this production the Duke seemed uneasy with his usurped role of friar/confessor, and he was awkward at first in his attempts to console Juliet and Claudio in 2.3 and 3.1, but his essential kindliness and warmth enabled him to play the role convincingly. This kindliness was apparent at many other moments, most notably at the end of the play, when the Duke made his initial proposal to Isabella, who turned away, appalled and uncertain. The Duke looked at her anxiously and then, to cover her confusion (and his own), turned back to Claudio, who knelt at his feet, and tousled his hair and patted his shoulder in an easy and affectionate gesture at "But fitter time for that." Throughout Baxter did a fine job of playing to the audience, as when the Duke tells Claudio in 3.1 that he is Angelo's confessor and therefore knows that Angelo is simply making a trial of Isabella; the Duke's explanation is of course a complete fiction, and Baxter managed to suggest to the audience that he was frantically improvising, all the while addressing Claudio with exemplary spiritual calm.

Most important, Baxter made us believe in the Duke's love for Isabella, a love that, in this production, developed credibly throughout the course of the play, so that the Duke's proposal in the final scene was surprising to no one except Isabella (and perhaps not much of a surprise to her). This Duke and Isabella were clearly much drawn to each other early on. In 3.1, when the Duke explains to Isabella his idea about the bed trick (which elicited an hilarious look of utter incredulity from Kelly McGillis's Isabella, a look that mirrored the audience's own response to this implausible idea), she gave him her hands as she agreed to go along with the plan, and they stood smiling at each other and holding hands until they became aware of what they were doing and dropped their hands abruptly. She kissed his hand gratefully upon departing, and, after she had left, the Duke tenderly kissed his hand where she had kissed it. Later, when they met again in 4.1, their pleasure at seeing each other was manifest. In 4.3, when the Duke gave Isabella the false news of Claudio's death, the Duke clearly suffered with her as he embraced and tried to comfort her.

There was also a strong suggestion throughout the play that the older Duke was guiding the younger Isabella towards a less judgmental, more forgiving attitude. In 3. 1, for example, when the Duke told Isabella the story of Mariana, the tale became a gentle reproof ("there she lost a noble and renown'd brother, in his love toward her ever most kind and natural") and moved Isabella to tears, softening her anger against Claudio. In the final scene, when Mariana importuned Isabella to help her plead for Angelo's life, Isabella paused with her back to the company and the audience for angonizing long moment while she struggled with herself. During this time the Duke watched her intently, and although she could not see him, he held out his hands to her in an unconsciously imploring gesture, as if begging her to relent. The Duke was never patronizing or paternalistic to Isabella; nevertheless, he realized that she was capable of empathy and kindness. Throughout the play he gently encouraged her towards that heightened understanding. While it is perhaps a bit much to say that the Duke performs the whole elaborate charade that constitutes the action of this play solely in order to help Isabella achieve a greater sensitivity to those around her, in this production one of the Duke's primary motivations was to lead Isabella to sensitivity. I found myself reflecting upon the painting of Pygmalion and Galatea that hung in the Duke's study and that Angelo first covered up and then dramatically revealed. In this production the Duke brought Isabella fully to life, and the presiding image of Galatea turning from beautiful but cold marble perfection into warm and living flesh was apt. It is a measure of Keith Baxter's complex and subtle performance, and of his talent as an actor, that his Duke never seemed manipulative or controlling as he brought about Isabella's transformation; he always seemed sincerely loving and caring.

Kelly McGillis was a sympathetic and appealing Isabella. She looked marvelous, as she always does, a tall, womanly figure in a plain, coarsely woven rose-colored robe and simple, laced ankle boots. After Angelo ripped off her white wimple and veil in 2.4, she appeared without them, her close cropped hair accentuating her cheekbones and her wonderfully expressive face. When we first saw her in 1.4, she was participating in an invented scene of her investiture, in which she was accompanied by a group of nuns who helped her exchange her ceremonial white dress for the simple novice's robe, while in the background came the sound of women's voices chanting hymns. McGillis was quietly radiant in this scene, and she seemed to be lit from within, as if suffused with spiritual happiness. She retained that glowing quality in her scenes with Angelo, and it was easy to understand why he was overcome by that radiance, which seemed to be the outward manifestation of Isabella's inner goodness. McGillis was a very sexy Isabella, but one plainly unaware of the effect that she exerted. Despite her naivete, she was an intelligent and forceful character, and the speed with which she told Angelo to "Sign me a present pardon for my brother, Or with an outtstretch'd throat I'll tell the world aloud / What man thou art" was the response of a quick-thinking and strong woman who refused to be victimized. Angelo's response of "Who will believe thee, Isabel?" coupled with his smug confidence that his reputation would protect him and that she would be thought mad, caused a sudden stillness in the audience, and I was certainly not the only person to be struck by the timeliness of this disturbing scene, which recalled so forcefully the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, and the recent, much-publicized rape trials of William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson.

In the final scene of the play, when Mariana begged Isabella to join her in pleading for Angelo's life, McGillis stood with her back to the stage crowd, and the audience, for a long, long moment of silence--longer than I have ever seen in a production of this play--before she turned and began to implore the Duke to pardon Angelo. It was probably the single most suspenseful moment that I have seen on The Shakespeare Theatre stage. Isabella's appeal, when it came, was all the more powerful for the painful delay, which clearly conveyed her own inner struggle. It was a bold move on the part of Michael Kahn and Kelly McGillis to play with that moment of silence as they did, but it worked exceptionally well. As my companion remarked afterwards, the entire fate of Western civilization seemed to hang in the balance of that moment, and McGillis made her audience feel this acutely.

The supporting characters were uniformly strong. In a wonderful triple role, Kate appeared not only as Mariana but as the nun Francisca who appears with Isabella in 1.4 and as the "Justice"-here a court reporter-in 2. 1. A stylish flapper with an elegant bob, she sat dutifully recording the proceedings with Elbow and Pompey. all the while exchanging glances with Escalus. At the end of the scene, she responded to Escalus's questions with a languorous, sexy air, and his invitation to her to join him for dinner acquired an entirely new resonance. Skinner's Mariana had a silly streak; when we saw her in 4.1, she was eating pastries and listening to an "Italian" tenor sing an affected and sentimentalized rendition of "Take, 0 take those lips away"accompanied by a zither. Mariana broke into luxuriously cathartic sobs at "Seals of love, but seal'd in vain." When she told the Duke that "I have sat here all day " she resumed munching an eclair, and we, like the Duke, had no trouble believing that she had spent the entire day in that fashion. Still, this Mariana appeared to have a "bottom of good sense," for she clearly appreciated Isabella, and she bore herself with quiet dignity when confronting the Duke and Angelo in 5. 1.

Lucio (0aniel Southern) was a decadent dandy in spats, evening cloak, and cane, whose white make-up and perpetually arched eyebrows recalled Cabaret once again particularly the Joel Grey emcee figure. But this Lucio was not so much sinister as simply intoxicated with himself. His tales against the Duke and then against Friar Ludovic seemed more the prattling of a character who loved to hear himself talk than the practice of real malice. He seemed to feel admiration for Isabella, although he was incapable of expressing it appropriately. In 4.3 he watched as Isabella was handed a small bundle of Claudio's personal effects after the supposed execution, and Lucio's " By my troth, Isabel, I lov'd thy brother" was sincerely grieved. In an amusing bit of business, Lucio's punk, Kate Keepdown, appeared at the end of the play, with babe in arms. And she shrieked with delight when the Duke ordered Lucio to marry her. Jonathan Lutz was excellent as the decent Provost, and both David Manis and his understudy, Eric Hoffmann, were amusing as Pompey. Hoffmann's regular role was Elbow, whom he played with a perfect blend of stupidity and pomposity, and who also had the funniest sight gag of the evening when the "strange picklock" that he pulled from Pompey's pockets turned out to be a large dildo. In another strong performance, Geoffrey M. Lower was an appealing Claudio who clearly loved his sister; his speeches urging Isabella not to yield to Angelo were delivered without a trace of irony.

At the end of the play, after the Duke's initial proposal, Isabella turned away, evidently somewhat appalled. Then as she stood aside, deliberating with herself, a softer expression came over her face, and one could almost read her thoughts. She seemed gradually to realize that the cloister was not for her and that in fact she wanted to marry the Duke. After everyone exited, the Duke and Isabella joined and exchanged a passionate and tender kiss. (Something of the sort seems to conclude most modern productions of this play, but I have never seen it done so convincingly. The affection between the Duke and Isabella had clearly been growing all along, as they exited together, one had the feeling that these two really belonged together.

This production was a real triumph for a number of reasons. Dramatically, the company communicated both the humor and the darkness of this peculiar play convincingly. The production was also a triumph for what it said about relations between men and women, and the more I thought about it, the more fitting that image of Pygmalion and Galatea began to seem. In the Gerome painting, Galatea ia a far from passive figure; she bends down to embrace Pygmalion and nearly overwhelms him, although her legs remain imprisoned in marble and she cannot as yet move. Despite the fact that she is not completely freed, there is an ambiguity in the painting about who is actually bringing whom to life, This Measure for Measure seems to be suggesting that there are a number of ways in which men and women can bring each other to life, as it were, and a number of ways in which men and women speak with and listen to each other, or refuse to do so. The Duke's tender and loving guidance of Isabella, and his willingness both to transform and to be transformed by her represent the more positive and equal forms of interaction possible between men and women. But countless alternative forms exist that are far less positive and that are repreresented not just by Angelo but by Lucio as well. For Angelo, women are objects to be used and then discarded. For Lucio, they are simply the object of jokes. Lucio's obscene reference to Pygmalion reduces the legend to tiresomely familiar jests about a woman's virginity and refuses to acknowledge the more profound and tender lessons that the myth implies, lessons that are beyond Lucio's grasp. It seemed appropriate that Kate Keepdown should appear at the play's conclusion, for her appearance helped to solidify the link between Lucio and Angelo, both of whom abandoned a woman to whom they have an obligation.

I noted earlier that the confrontation between Angelo and Isabella inevitably recalled recent incidents in which a man and a woman have publicly confronted each other, and Washington, D.C., in 1992 seemed a particularly appropriate place in which to present this production of Measure for Measure. Angelo's comment in the final scene that "these poor [disordered] women are no more / But instruments of some more mightier member / That sets them on" echoed last year's October Senate hearings, and Isabella's attempts to procure justice for herself and her brother seemed poignant and up-to-date. The final vision offered by this production suggested that men and women are indeed capable of mutual redemption, but only through honest communication and shared devotion. The threat that loomed over this Vienna was that such communication would never occur, that Pygmalion and Galatea would never awaken each other, and that both men and women would remain as Mariana threatens she will do, "forever...confixed here, / A marble monument!"

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