Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, directed by Fontaine Syer, featuring Greg Wood, Blake Ellis, Erin Partin, Brad DePlanche and Aaron Kirkpatrick.

Review: Measure for Measure

By Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

If ever there was a production that illustrated just how problematic Shakespeare’s “problem plays” can be, it’s Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Measure for Measure,  directed by Fontaine Syer. Syer sets the action in Vienna, 1900, a city at the top of its cultural game, blossoming as a center of art and design, particularly art nouveau, but also that year seeing the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. 

Marla Jurglanis’ costumes don’t reflect art nouveau’s flowing, sensuous curves, but that’s not what the play’s about anyway. Duke Vincentio (Greg Wood) leaves his ascetic, moralistic deputy Angelo (Blake Ellis) to clean up the city--fallen, under the duke’s watch--into a state of moral decay. Angelo’s first act is to sentence to death Claudio, a gentleman who impregnated his betrothed. His second act? Ask Claudio’s sister Isabella (Erin Partin)--a young nun who arrives to beg for Claudio’s pardon--if she’s willing to trade her virginity for her brother’s life. 

Syers lingers on the struggle between restraint and release, a dark representation of the battle against our natural urges, id versus superego. Even the prostitutes are corseted, while Bob Phillips’ spare set nods at the Viennese influence on modernism, with simple black stairs and scaffolding forming a rotating labyrinth of prison bars. Comedy arrives in the forms of Pompey (Brad DePlanche), a squat, lively whorehouse bartender and Lucio (Aaron Kirkpatrick), Claudio’s foppish friend, though there’s a seediness to them both--Pompey filthy and unkempt, Lucio bedecked with a head-and-tail fox stole and unctuous manner. Wood’s Duke also treads the comic line with a lack of self-awareness that defangs his more pompous pronouncements. 

But there’s danger in laughing at a powerful man, and all Measure for Measure’s women, low- and high-born are still subject to their whims, no matter how ridiculous they may be. The production’s most powerful scenes were added by Syers: Ellis’ milquetoast facade gives way to seething, frightening self-hatred, as he--literally--flagellates himself for his attraction to Isabella; Wood’s Duke, after torturing Isabella with reports of her brother’s death, turns to her with a blank, disarming smile and makes her an offer she can’t refuse. 

Some of Shakespeare’s humor gets sacrificed to weigh down the play’s themes, and though Partin suffers like a martyr, it’s a shame she doesn’t get to have much fun, but that seems to be Syers’ point. As Vincentio’s associate Escalus notes, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” As Freud could tell these characters, whichever path they choose, they must face the bars of their own psychological prisons.

Playing at: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa. Through Sun., Aug. 4. Tickets: $25 to $55. Information: 610-282-WILL or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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