Tuesday, November 28, 2017

From the Archives: 'A Measure of Human Frailty'

The cascade of allegations, accusations, apologies, and resignations that has followed news reports about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, and many other powerful and celebrated men may suggest to a visitor from Mars that sexual harassment is a concept with its origins in the 21st century. Far from it, as this 20th century review of a 16th century play will show. Whether William Shakespear's Measure for Measure is the first dramatic piece about sexual harassment to be performed may be up for dispute, but it surely is the one with the greatest longevity.

This review of Mask & Bauble's production of Measure for Measure was originally published in The Metro Herald in October 1995.

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A Measure of Human Frailty
(Review of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at Georgetown University)
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

In the 1960s, before the professional theatre scene in Washington blossomed to the extent we now know it, the Mask & Bauble Dramatic Society at Georgetown University (M&B) was the Capital's premier venue for classical and modern drama. Mask & Bauble members were invited to perform at the White House by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Mask & Bauble alumni of that era include Tony-award winning director Jack Hofsiss (The Elephant Man) and Tony-winning playwright John Guare (The House of the Blue Leaves).

William Shakespeare Measure for MeasureWith the opening of the Kennedy Center, Georgetown University Theatre lost some of its lustre relative to the new works available on the banks of the Potomac, and with the Kennedy Center as their furrow, newer and more ambitious theatres sprouted around town. Yet the student actors, directors, and technicians at M&B -- the oldest continuously operating, student-run theatre society in America -- still plow forward.

To open its 143rd season, Mask & Bauble offers William Shakespeare's comedy, Measure for Measure. "Comedy" is used here in a broad technical sense, because despite a few bawdy and funny moments, this is a serious play in which the the threat of death and dishonor hangs over the characters throughout. It is a comedy in that all the protaganists remain alive at the closing curtain and there is, in a sense, a "happy ending." The path to reach that ending is no primrose lane, however. Rather, it forces the audience to consider eternal questions of right and wrong, of tyranny and justice, of mercy and legal precision.

Producer Philip Hammack told the Metro Herald that he and director Jack Shay were drawn to Measure for Measure because of its theme of "human frailty" and its requirement of "self-reflection in the light of self-deception." To convey this theme graphically, the play takes place on an austerely decorated set, which consists largely of blocks of wood, dappled with drab grey and embedded with shards of mirrors. A full-length, two-way mirror predominates upstage, so that surreal actions can take place behind it and explain off-stage elements of the story wordlessly.

The plot, in a nutshell, is this: The Duke of Vienna takes leave of his subjects and places responsibility for government, in his absence, in the hands of Lord Angelo. Angelo begins to enforce some of the stricter moral codes that the lenient Duke has ignored during the previous 14 years of his reign. Caught in this new legalism is Claudio, imprisoned and sentenced to death for fornication. Claudio's sister, Isabella, about to become a nun, pleads with Angelo for clemency for her brother. Angelo refuses to commute Claudio's sentence -- unless Isabella has sex with him. With no witnesses to this callous request, Isabella knows that no one will believe her if she tells them that the upright Angelo has behaved like this. She goes to Claudio in prison and tells him she cannot sin to save his life. At the same time, the Duke, who has disguised himself as an ordinary priest, finds out what has happened. He arranges for Angelo's jilted former fiancée to substitute herself for Isabella. Then he returns without his disguise and tricks Angelo into admitting his calumny. He commutes Claudio's death sentence -- but orders him to marry the woman Claudio had impregnated -- allows Angelo to marry the woman he mistakenly seduced, and asks Isabella to be his wife.

William Shakespeare Measure for Measure 1957The overriding theme is one of whether and how mercy can temper justice. In this, it is carried over from some of Shakespeare's other works, notably The Merchant of Venice. Superimposed on this is, for modern audiences, a potent political message. It asks: What happens when a liberal government -- one that does not enforce severe and strict laws addressing personal morality -- is replaced by a more puritanical one? Indeed, what role does government have in using its coercive power, even the threat of death, to make its people virtuous?

Virtue, of course, cannot be coerced. Otherwise it is not virtue, because virtue must be freely chosen. Shakespeare surely recognizes this. The evidence is the contrasting characters of the Duke and his deputy, Angelo.

Angelo is a prig who becomes a hypocrite. The Duke is a liberal-minded ruler with a "live and let live" philosophy. He is righteous without being self-righteous. From the very first scene, we know the Duke is modest and lacks ambition for himself. He genuinely cares for his subjects. Angelo, in contrast, cares more for the letter of the law than for its spirit. He cares less for his people than for justice most narrowly defined. He cannot, in the Duke's words, "condemn the fault" without also condemning "the actor of it."

The student actors convey these themes with strength and understanding. Claudio, played by Andrew Owiti, breathes pure desperation as he begs Isabella (Leila Howland) to forsake her own -- and her family's -- honor to save his head from the hangman. Angelo (Patrick McFadden) reeks self-righteousness, but falls short in making us believe he has fallen in love with Isabella; his stolid emotions do not vary from before and after their first meeting; he is indeed a stoical puritan. Jason Heffron as Elbow provides strong comic relief, and Henry S. deGuchi as Claudio's friend, Lucio, presents a convincing "man-about-town" who finds himself participating in a life-and-death dilemma.

The theme of sexual harassment is not something recently discovered by the likes of Michael Crichton (last year's hit movie, Disclosure) or David Mamet (his play, Oleanna). Shakespeare was writing about it 400 years ago. In the bard's own words, there is "nothing new under the sun." And so we continue to wrestle with our own frailties, our own inclination to deceive ourselves and our fellows.

Measure for Measure continues through October 21 at Stage III, Poulton Hall, 37th and P Streets, N.W. Tickets are $5 for students and $8 for general admission. For reservations, call 202-687-6783.

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