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Does "Measure for Measure" Measure Up?

Terry O'Hara

Vienna comes to Baltimore! Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of "Measure for Measure." She brings us this review.  

The Rousuck Review: Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of "Measure by Measure" 

Theater companies have produced plays outdoors at the Evergreen Museum and Library for years. But the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s “Measure for Measure” is being staged in a rather novel spot. Instead of the usual meadow setting in back, director Tom Delise has mounted the play immediately in front of Evergreen House.

The house becomes a stand-in for the palace of the Duke of Vienna, the character who sets this dark, disturbing Problem Play in motion.

Morals, it seems, have been slipping in Vienna, and not wanting to play the heavy himself, the Duke appoints a straight arrow named Angelo to be his enforcer.

Angelo decides to make an example of a man named Claudio, who has impregnated his fiancée. Of course, among modern American royalty -- that is to say, celebrities – baby bumps before marriage seem to be all the rage.

Not so in Angelo’s erstwhile puritanical regime. Angelo sentences Claudio to death. Claudio’s sister Isabella pleads for leniency – and, in the process, turns the head of self-righteous, hypocritical Angelo.

Oh yes, and the Duke observes it all while disguised as an understanding –but meddling -- friar.

As an actor explains before the production begins: Shakespeare used the music of his day, and the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory uses the music of our day – songs ranging from the Kinks’ “Shepherds of the Nation” to country singer Jace Everett’s “Bad Things.”

But these pop songs aren’t incorporated into the play. They’re sung beforehand, afterward and during intermission. The production itself adheres strictly to its original time period.

The company makes another semi-bow to Shakespeare’s era, when all of the female parts were played by men. The Shakespeare Factory also does cross-gender casting, although in this production several male roles – including the Duke and a pimp – are played by women.

The results vary. Many cast members overdo their performances – infusing them with heavy doses of anger and pumping up their gestures and volume.

Valerie Dowdle is more restrained as the Duke-turned-friar. By the time the Duke learns of the immoral deal that Angelo offers Isabella, Dowdle has left room for the Duke’s indignation to build – and to be slightly bemused by the discovery of Angelo’s duplicity.

Joel Ottenheimer displays the most range as Isabella’s condemned brother, Claudio. His sudden reversal of opinion about saving his sister’s honor is one of the rare times we see a character change.

As smug Angelo, Alex Smith is dressed in black with a military haircut and ramrod posture. But Smith sells this Machiavellian upholder of morality short by hyping his rancor. Even Angelo’s attraction to Isabella sounds angry.

Granted, Angelo could be angry at himself for being attracted to Isabella. But this notion would be more effective if there were more shadings leading up to it.

Angelo is one of two male characters attracted to Isabella in the course of the play. But Erin Wagner’s relatively flat, caught-in-the-headlights portrayal makes it difficult to appreciate the source of that attraction.

In addition, the sameness of Tom Delise’s direction takes much of the tension out of Shakespeare’s troubling play. The director repeatedly positions actors at the corners of his square stage, or has one circle the perimeter while another pivots in the center.

There’s still a lot of relevance in “Measure for Measure.” Who can’t name one -- or several -- 21st century politicians hoisted on their own holier-than-thou petards? It doesn’t take updating to make you think about these resonances. But the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production left me thinking primarily about yelling and anger. Would that this “Measure for Measure” were a little more measured.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck       

“Measure for Measure” continues through August 17, outdoors at the Evergreen Museum and Library, with additional performances August 22 and 29 at Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, MD, and August 23 and 24 at St. Mary’s Outreach Center in Hampden. More information here. 

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.