Review: A "Measure for Measure" That Takes the Measure of Our Moment

Measure for Measure

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Beth Ann Hopkins and Raquel Chavez

Presented by Smith Street Stage at The Mark O’Donnell Theater at The Entertainment Community Fund Arts Center

160 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, NYC

September 28-October 15, 2022

Mahayla Laurence & cast. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder, Find the Light Photography
The resonances between Smith Street Stage's new production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and the ongoing protests in Iran are unmissable. The flashpoint for these massive protests was the death of a young woman named Mahsa Amini, arrested for improperly wearing her hijab, in the custody of Iran's morality police, and Smith Street rousingly frames Shakespeare's play through mass resistance by women to patriarchal policing of their bodies in a Vienna in which a government crackdown on morality means, for instance, that having a child while engaged is punishable by execution. Such is the case for Claudio (Tobias Wong) and his intended, Juliet (Delia Kemph), who are caught up in the puritanical enforcement policies of Angelo (Jonathan Michael Hopkins), who is left in charge by the Duke of Vienna (Keith Hale) while the Duke, unbeknownst to Angelo, pulls a Henry V and assumes a disguise in order to observe his subjects. Claudio's impending execution provides the central moral dilemma of the play when the normally icy Angelo's passions are inflamed by Claudio's sister, Isabella (Aileen JaiLing Wu), a novice nun who comes to plead for her brother's life, and he decides hypocritically to attempt to use his position of authority to appease his desire.
Toni Kwadzogah & Daniella Rabbani. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder, Find the Light Photography
This Measure for Measure makes clear connections to contemporary, homegrown repressions. Most notably, the bawdy houses that Angelo orders plucked down in the original text are reimagined, through costuming and smart edits to the language, as clinics. In one scene between Angelo's underling Escalus (Toni Kwadzogah) and clinic employee Pompey (a fantastic Daniella Rabbani), Escalus makes it clear, without explicitly saying so, that she is sympathetic but will enforce the law as ordered, calling to mind similar statements from women officials in various U.S. states since the fall of Roe (a position that holds some unfortunate similarity to Angelo's excuse that it is the law, not him, which compels Claudio's death). The production also consistently reminds us of the material fact of Claudio and Juliet's baby–left, of course, to Juliet to care for–as when its cries become louder and louder as the disguised Duke self-indulgently pontificates in abstractions.
Delia Kemph. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder, Find the Light Photography
The performances are never less than immersive, a feeling enhanced by the touches of live music, and the cast stamps each character with absorbing individuality, whether Hale's idiosyncratic Duke or Wu's Isabella, who seems at times almost compelled against her will to speak out. Hopkins makes an outstanding Angelo, and a pivotal confrontation in the play's first half between Angelo and Isabella is particularly powerfully realized. Nic Sanchez provides funny but grounded comic relief as Lucio, just as Wong, when not deftly engendering audience commiseration as Claudio, does in a more outsized comic vein as the confidently inept constable Elbow.
Aileen Wu & Jonathan Hopkins. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder, Find the Light Photography
Isabella's agonized realization that she may have no one to whom to complain of her injustice or, at best, no one who would believe her, is scarcely less a struggle for women today than when the play was first written. This conundrum is part of what drives her, a religious novice, to find common ground with Angelo's former flame Mariana (Mahayla Laurence), imagined here as a militant feminist. Neither of these women, the production movingly suggests, will be content merely to let the Duke blithely exercise his power. In that and other moments, reimaginings applied with a light touch render this Measure for Measure excitingly fresh and undeniably germane.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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