Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” is hard to put in a pocket.
“It defies genre because it has comic elements,” says David Morden, who is directing the play for The Rogue Theatre.
“It has tragic style in it, but nobody really dies at the end. It ends with a wedding, but there are questions as to how happy they are.
“It’s classified as a problem play, but I call it fascinating.”
He also calls it timely.
“We could take today’s political figures and put them into the characters in the play,” he says.
“There’s a lot about extremity in human relations, and extremity in government — a realization that the government doesn’t make sense. This play asks, ‘how do you lead a society so that everyone is allowed to thrive?’”
Here’s a rundown of the Rogue production:
The Duke is preparing to leave Vienna for a bit, and puts Lord Angelo temporarily in charge. Lord Angelo is extremely conservative, moralistic and inflexible. While in control of Vienna, he decides to crack down on offenders of the oppressive fornication laws. He’s going to get rid of the brothels and put a stop to unlawful sex.
Young Claudio gets caught in Angelo’s web: He is arrested because his betrothed becomes pregnant. Claudio will serve as an example to the rest: he is given a date with the executioner.
Claudio’s sister, Isabella, chaste and preparing to enter the nunnery, asks Angelo for mercy for her brother.
Sure, he says, if you have sex with me.
Isabella turns him down.
The Duke, who didn’t really leave Vienna but disguised himself as a friar so he could see what goes on when no one knows he’s around, devises a plan to trick Angelo and win Claudio’s freedom. He explains to Isabella that Angelo was once engaged to Mariana, but he left her high and dry when she lost her dowry. Isabella should agree to Angelo’s proposition, though in the dark of night she will change places with Mariana. Angelo, thinking he has done the deed with Isabella, will let Claudio go. When the truth wins out, Angelo will then be forced to marry Mariana, as the law says he must.
Angelo, natch, messes everything up. He believes he has slept with Isabella but is convinced her brother will exact revenge on him; he orders Claudio’s death.
Ah, but the Duke is on to Angelo and has a plan. He will “return” to Vienna as himself and hear complaints. Isabella brings her charges against Angelo, and the Duke pretends not to believe her. Eventually, he reveals he had disguised himself as a friar and was privy to all that happened. Angelo was sentenced to death, but Mariana begs the Duke to forgive him. When it is revealed Claudio wasn’t really executed, the Duke grants Mariana’s request and Angelo has to marry her.
The Duke then proposes marriage to Isabella. Shakespeare didn’t include her answer — she responds with silence. Which means that the end gets interpreted all different ways by directors and actors who mount the play.
The Rogue’s take
“We left it in Shakespeare’s era,” Morden says. “That’s the aesthetic of the Rogue.” Anything else, he added, “distracts from the telling of the story.”
And the set will be a bare-bones one.
“There’s a chair and two stools; that’s all the furniture,” Morden says.
“There are a couple of productions of the play around the country right now, and they are dripping with sets and costumes. If we are thinking about the costumes instead of what Shakespeare’s written, we’re not doing our job. It’s about honoring what he’s written.”
About that language — and the length
Shakespeare can be difficult for some — his plays can be long and the language often unfamiliar.
Morden’s got that covered.
“When there’s a word that’s out of usage, we’ll substitute a modern word,” he says.
And he and Cynthia Meier, co-founder of the Rogue and a cast member, took scissors to the script.
“You have to cut it,” Morden says. “Some of it just doesn’t make sense anymore.”
He describes one comic scene where a group of men volley jokes back and forth. The humor is very much of the time and place the play was written.
“I know no one will get those jokes,” Morden says. “That scene is now about 10 seconds long.”
Expect to work a bit
“This play is intriguing in a really exciting way,” says Morden. “You can’t come to ‘Measure’ and be passive. Your participation is required; you have to be engaged.”