Review: Spicy Witch Gives New Meaning to 'Justice' in "Measure for Measure"

Measure for Measure

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted and directed by Phoebe Brooks

Presented by Spicy Witch Productions at The Flea Theater

20 Thomas St., Manhattan, NYC

May 18-June 1, 2019

Blake Kelton Prentiss and Pearl Shin. Photo credit: Phoebe Brooks
In each of its seasons, Spicy Witch Productions pairs contemporary and classical plays in repertory in order to explore gender and identity. The themes of previous seasons have included gender presentation, gendered violence, and the construct of relationships as a form of ownership. This season, Spicy Witch’s seventh, focuses on rebellion and revolution and puts a production of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure into thought-provoking conversation with new play The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows. In addition, putting its money where its theme is, Spicy Witch will donate a portion of sales of merchandise, available in the lobby, to Planned Parenthood. We discuss each production in a separate review: The Virtuous Fall at this link and Measure for Measure with reference to Virtuous Fall here.

Shavana Clarke, Blake Kelton Prentiss, and Mia Canter. Photo credit: Phoebe Brooks
There is no doubt that Spicy Witch began work on its adaptation of Measure for Measure significantly prior to last week’s renewal of aggressive attacks on women’s reproductive rights, attacks which many view as designed specifically to force a hearing before the Supreme Court; it is uncanny, then, how closely this re-envisioning of Shakespeare’s play reflects these most recent developments. Measure for Measure was performed in 1604 (and argued by some to have been later adapted by Thomas Middleton into the form in which it was eventually preserved in print), but Phoebe Brooks’s streamlined version speaks directly to our current, disheartening political climate. Briefly, the original play sees Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, invest the puritanical Angelo with his authority in his forthcoming absence. Vincentio reveals to a friar that his true purpose is both that he hopes to see Angelo enforce the laws that Vincentio feels that he has become lax in upholding and that he may observe the Viennese people unawares while disguised as a friar himself. Angelo takes to his new duties enthusiastically, decreeing, for instance, that all bawdy houses must be pulled down. Meanwhile, Claudio, a gentleman, who was contracted to Juliet, is imprisoned and sentenced to die for impregnating her before marriage (even though premarital sex between two betrothed people was not uncommonly seen as acceptable in early modern England). Claudio’s sister, Isabella, a novice to a sisterhood of nuns, pleads to Angelo for her brother, which leads to Angelo, aroused by Isabella’s extreme virtue, later proposing that she have sex with him in exchange for Claudio’s life.

Brooks and Spicy Witch reduce Shakespeare’s characteristically sprawling cast of characters and trim some of the subplots and the main plot’s complications, setting this fresh, fast-moving version in the world of the contemporary judiciary and gender-swapping everyone except Angelo and Claudio. Duke Vincentio becomes Chief Justice Vincentia (Mia Canter), wearing a jabot that directly evokes Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Escalus, a lord and Angelo’s secondary, becomes Justice Escala (Shavana Clarke) and Vincentio’s confidante Friar Thomas is reporter Mrs. Thomas (Renita Lewis). The production combines Mariana, Angelo’s cast-off intended, and Mistress Overdone, a bawd, into the unapologetic, leopard print-wearing Mariana Overdone (Sarah Rosengarten). Claudio (Stephen Zuccaro) is a senator rather than a gentleman and Isabella (Pearl Shin, whose character in The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows wishes that Isabella were a character in M4M2 so that she could play her) a legal intern rather than a novice. While the flowers dressing the stage space remain the same as in The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows—and retain many of same symbolic possibilities regarding traditional constructions of femininity, here with more emphasis on purity, given the centrality of Isabella’s virgin chastity to Shakespeare’s main plot—the portraits of female saints are replaced by portraits of men ensconced in the robes of authority.

Ashi Lee and Sarah Rosengarten. Photo credit: Phoebe Brooks
The roles of rumor, public opinion, and media are underscored in this production, with the click of typewriters ringing out over some scene changes and characters repeatedly reading the latest newspaper editions and posing with empty smiles for press photos. Even during Isabella’s initial meeting with Angelo (Blake Kelton Prentiss), Lucia (Ashil Lee), this production’s Lucio, and Officer Provost (Alia Guidry) engage in some funny background business over selfies. Indeed, this Measure for Measure leans into the humor, but it does so in service of making a deeply serious point about the politics of and around gender and sexuality. Gender-swapping most of the characters means that the two males, Claudio and Angelo, both make claims on Isabella for selfish reasons. Cutting Angelo’s talking about his giving in to what he calls the temptation of Isabella makes his propositioning her all the more sleazy; and, in their reimagined setting, some of this Jacobean play’s scenes appear almost astonishingly apropos to recent events. For instance, Angelo, in front of an image of Brett Kavanaugh, asks Isabella who will believe her claims about his misconduct; and Isabella, in another scene, asks Vincentio not to assume that she is ”touched with madness” in her claims against this powerful man. Fittingly, the microphones in the climactic scene suggest not only a press conference but also testimony before Congress.

Lee is both charismatic and very funny as Lucia, and Prentiss’s Angelo exudes an appropriate smarmy self-confidence in juxtaposition to Shin’s determined, upright Isabella. The comic punctuation of Angelo’s assistant owes a lot to Lewis’s performance, while the play’s seventeenth-century dialogue sounds decidedly natural coming from Guidry, in an excellent turn as Officer Provost. This production adjusts the specifics of how pardon and punishment are doled out in the end in ways that both are thematically appropriate and allow the audience to enjoy the spectacle of women measuring out justice. Spicy Witch’s Measure for Measure is an inventive, sharply focused, and fun reimagining of a problem comedy for problematic times.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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