The government preaches morality and a return to tradition, while heads of state give in to lust and scandal. Sounds like hypocrisy made in America rather than the work of a bard over four centuries ago. Once again, Shakespeare proves timeless in his lesser-known work Measure for Measure about a Duke who grants power to a self-proclaimed "saint," Lord Angelo, who vows to clean up Vienna's bawdy streets.
In the process, Angelo becomes a predator of the virgin Isabella, who comes to him begging for her brother Claudio's life. Claudio has been doomed for execution at the hand of Angelo over a civil technicality in the newly reinstated morality laws. A play not often performed and difficult to pull off, Measure for Measure challenges its audience to explore the idea of how man should be measured under the law of a civilized society. What is equal justice and who are we to judge?
It's a fitting piece considering the issues voters are facing in November. But despite the interesting choice to add Measure for Measure to its repertoire, the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's production proves why it is often referred to as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The paradox between human nature and social order feels muddled and too easily tied up in the conclusion. The festival attempted to correct this by relying heavily on the melodrama instead of turning up the camp. As is often the case with Shakespeare, his true gems are hidden in the slapstick, but in this interpretation the dramatic scenes overpowered the stage.
Another problem was director Richard Width's choice to set the play in pre-World War II Vienna. One of the reasons Shakespeare is kept alive is the license that directors take to place his universal tales in contemporary times. In this case, not much was gained by taking such. Period clothing and a few abrupt and awkward musical numbers were not enough to see the vision through. More emphasis should have been placed on the pro-Nazi society and the dangers of a time when opinion had the power to become law.
But the biggest obstacle to the cast seemed to be the language. With the exception of Timothy Williams as Lucio, depraved friend of Claudio, the actors' lines lacked spontaneity and depth. The direction allowed the actors too much posing and posturing toward the audience, so connections were weak among the characters. The pacing was slow, the dramatic scenes were not tempered, but the cast all shouted and played at the same intensity.
The actors also took on several roles each but didn't differentiate enough between their parts, causing confusion in important scenes. For example, the scene following intermission felt more like a flashback between Claudio and his lover, Juliette, than the introduction of two new characters.
As director Width stated in the program, the goal of this work is to inspire a "more compassionate response to what it means to live in harmony with a paradox of humanity." But individual strong performances and a masterful set design were not enough to help Width's audience reach this level of understanding. Instead the performance floundered without ever finding its full measure.