Nothing is Simple

People's Light captures the complexities of Measure for Measure.

by Cary M. Mazer

People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through April 5, (610) 644-3500

Graham Smith and Mary Elizabeth Scallen in Measure by Measure

Angelo (Graham Smith), the newly appointed deputy to the mysteriously absent Duke of Vienna, has arranged to meet Isabella (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) in his chambers. Isabella, dressed in the white habit of the religious order she is about to join, has come to plead for the life of her brother Claudio, condemned to death by Angelo in his draconian enforcement of the city's long-neglected laws against fornication. Angelo has invited Isabella to his chambers to make her an offer that (he thinks) she can't refuse: sleep with me and I'll spare your brother's life.

This scene, about a third of the way into the play, is the centerpiece of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, for it contains in concentrated form all of the issues of the play: sexuality (and doomed attempts to contain it), power (and its abuses), moral certainties (and their failure to deal with other people's, and one's own, immoral impulses), and the difficulties of knowing one's self in a complicated world.

This scene is the centerpiece of Stephen Novelli's rich and subtle production at People's Light & Theatre, not only for its meanings, but for its emotional landscape. The scene really cooks, as Smith and Scallen circle around one another, testing and probing their own and each other's emotions. Angelo, morally rigid, is now almost doubled over with confusion over what his own body is telling him. Isabella - ever eager to kneel, her hands upraised in prayer and supplication every time she faces people and situations she can't handle, as though God and heaven can provide explanations for worldly things she herself can't understand - listens patiently to Angelo and, ever so slowly, finally begins to understand the terms of his ultimatum. As the realization dawns on her, and as we watch it come across her face, we realize that there are no easy answers - not from laws, not from God, not from our own moral codes.

Novelli and his designers have set the play in Germany during the Weimar era between the World Wars in order to capture the moral and political uncertainties of the world of the play. This is a world perpetually shrouded in cigar smoke, the beams of light (designed by Thomas C. Hase) creating prison bars as imprisoning as the angular metallic mesh of James F. Pyne's urban landscape. The whores, pimps, fat cats and lowlifes look as though they've stepped out a cartoon by George Grosz.

The only characters who seem comfortable in this moral chaos - the elderly civil servant Escalus (Louis Lippa) and the gentleman-about-town Lucio (Benjamin Lloyd, dressed impeccably in a dove-gray fedora and coat with leopard trim, designed by Marla J. Jurglanis) - are ones who have an unjustifiable confidence in their way of life. Other characters - Isabella's condemned brother Claudio (Benjamin White), Angelo's discarded fiancee Mariana (Marguerite Hannah) - seek solace for their collapsed lives in drink.

In this amoral playground, Isabella's prayers provide fewer and fewer answers. By contrast, the Duke (Peter DeLaurier) thinks that he has found more and more answers.

Constitutionally insecure in the public arena, the Duke travels about his corrupt city disguised as a friar, getting more and more involved in the crises in his citizens' lives, and more and more confident about his ability to set things right. By the end of the play, the Duke has stage-managed a very public reconciliation scene designed to test all of the characters and restore a sense of community and order.

If the events that he brings about seem a bit forced, the reconciliations a bit artificial, that may very well be the point of Novelli's reading of the play. Escalus sits, shocked at the extent to which he has misjudged his colleagues; Angelo, shamed, seeks only punishment by death (which is denied him); and Lucio is dragged off, kicking and screaming.

It's all a bit ridiculous. And we in the audience laugh (as we all did during the horrific moment when Isabella tells her brother in prison that she'd rather he die than submit to Angelo's ultimatum), perhaps because the play and the production plunge us into a discomforting confusion about our own moral certainties.

By the end of the evening, we can only stare in disbelief - just as Isabella does as she listens to the Duke's ill-timed, ill-phrased, unjustified and unjustifiable marriage proposal, and, ever so slowly, comes to realize that life isn't, and can never be, that simple.