Last night, I attended Bard Fest’s production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” directed by Paige Scott, one of the Central Indiana artists I admire most. 

Actually, “directed by” may not be the best description of what Scott — and anyone seriously approaching this play — had to do. “Wrestled with” is a better description.

That’s because “Measure for Measure” is a wild, messy ride. Scott and I and others discussed it a few months ago here. but we only scratched the surface of what’s in — and what can be mined from — the play. 

Some thoughts: 

  1. What a difference an Escalus makes. The first time I saw “Measure for Measure,” I went in blindly, barely knowing the outline of the plot. (Nun Isabella has to make a choice between protecting her virginity/integrity/soul or giving up her body to save her brother’s life.) That was 2011’s Public Theatre Shakespeare in the Park production and I was so busy trying to keep track of the subplots — which I remain a bit baffled by — that I barely noticed the great John Cullum as Escalus, somewhat of a moral conscience in the piece. There, an in subsequent productions I’ve seen, the elderly advisor seemed maybe the sixth or seventh most important person in the play. Paige Scott’s Escalus (played here by Miranda Nehrig) is something different altogether. A change of gender, aging the character down a few decades, and prominently anchoring her in the action from beginning to end, makes Escalus central to this production of the play. It’s a choice that pays off, giving the audience clear eyes to see the play’s horrors through.
  2. What the hell is the deal with the Duke? The plot is set in motion when an soft-on-crime Duke (here David Mosedale) decides to vanish for a bit and turn over authority to a far stricter lieutenant, Angelo (Zachariah Stonerock). A committee of writers today would probably take the Duke, one of Shakespeare’s most multifaceted characters, and turn him simply into a variation on ‘Undercover Boss.” In disguise, he’d see the problems of real people, eventually reveal his identity, and set things right. That almost maybe happens here … until it doesn’t. Yes, he sees a problem and tries to solve it. But his methodology is disturbing to say the least. And deeply patriarchal. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, couples are partnered up at the end of “Measure,” but it’s difficult to imagine anyone being satisfied by these pairings. 
  3. “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” remains one of Shakespeare’s most spot on and disturbing lines. Followed closely by “My false outweighs your true.” We may have come a long way in 400 years, but the fact that these lines still ring true is a testament to the play and a shame on society.
  4. Sometimes, minimal is the way to go. I’m second to maybe only a few in my appreciation for a detailed set design. But when budgets are tight, it can be best to go with next to nothing rather than a weak wannabe. Bard Fest’s “Measure for Measure’ stage is populated by people and a few chairs. That’s enough. 
  5. “A comedy in structure, a tragedy in tone.” That’s the way the play is described on the Heavenly Shows and Unnecessary Letters podcast. Yep.