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 www.pashakespeare.org