Her brother is about to be killed, and she can’t stop laughing.
But it’s understandable. Portraying a ruling Duke temporarily disguised as a friar, actor Michael Forden Walker had come up with a bit of physical funny business to send off a nun-in-training (played by Adrianna Mitchell) after they hatch a plan to save her brother, who is sentenced to die. Mitchell cracks up.
It’s a good sign, because laughs are hard-won in “Measure for Measure,” a Shakespeare play about crime and punishment that was apparently intended as a comedy, but includes enough tragic elements and ambiguities for scholars often to place it in the miscellaneous bin of “problem” plays.
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian counsels the pair to keep straight faces.
“It's like when some director is giving you a piece of direction that seems ill-advised but you have to take it seriously because it's an authority figure. I know you can't imagine that,” she tells them, and the trio enjoys another chuckle. You can sense this levity is well-appreciated. The play is made of stern stuff.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project returns to the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge for this production, which began performances this week. The venue is part of the historic Bulfinch Square complex that once housed the Middlesex County Courthouse, a superior court, and other municipal offices. This is the theater troupe’s fifth time in the space, but the setting now seems particularly apt.
The imposing two-story room, with its marble floor, wrought-iron railings and intricate inlays reaching toward its towering ceiling, feels like a grand, secular temple. The audience is seated on opposing risers, with the playing space in-between. A seal of Justice placed on the center of the floor, and some rows of dangling noose-like ropes indicating a prison, make up most of the set.
“The most dramatic set piece is the room,” Sandberg-Zakian says in a post-rehearsal interview.
The play opens with the permissive Duke of Vienna placing care of the city in the hands of Angelo (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), an austere man who zealously beefs up enforcement of the city’s laws, which had grown lax. He condemns young, poor Claudio (Jared Michael Brown) to death when the woman he is engaged to is found to be with child. Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is shortly to join a particularly strict order of nuns, pleads for clemency. Angelo offers a deal: she can trade her chastity to him for her brother’s life.
Isabella famously sums up her sense of powerlessness in the face of an unjust system with a despairing rhetorical question: “To whom should I com plain?”
Sandberg-Zakian has cast most of the principal characters with African-American actors. She says the play’s contemporary relevance is underlined by the recent intensification of the national debate over police treatment of minorities.
“We've had a lot of emotional rehearsals and a lot of emotional conversations. To see a young black man in handcuffs,” the director says, referencing the Claudio character, “and people talking about killing him, it really brought a different kind of poignancy to it for me. Claudio is sentenced to death and there's a lot of question about whether his death is fair, whether it's lawful, and whether the punishment is being inflicted on him in a way that it's not being inflicted on other people.”
Parent says the play is “both timeless and timely.”
“There's some basic human connections and issues that are timeless, that will always be part of our experience, and Shakespeare taps into that. It's the case of a timeless work, and a work that's timely to our contemporary experience.”
Though Angelo is described in the play as having “snow-broth” for blood, Parent is finding ways to tease out some relatable character shadings.
“I think he's a reluctant villain. It's just his own internal struggles and the things he's surprised with about himself,” Parent says. “I think it's more powerful to think of him as a person who's put in a situation to make a good choice or a bad choice. We all are capable of making the bad choice.”
Though Parent is familiar to Boston audiences, Mitchell is a newcomer. The 24-year-old Atlanta native describes this as her first professional production. She says she’s still working on translating the lofty ideas examined in the play into visceral on-stage moments.
“There’s nothing casual happening in this play. We're not sitting around saying, ‘Hey, how are you? Do you want some orange juice?’ It's: “My brother's going to die! Oh, he did die! No he didn't!”
In its subversion of genre expectations, the play seems to wind its way toward the conventional resolution of a Shakespearean comedy—everybody getting married. But when the would-be nun Isabella receives a marriage proposal at the play’s conclusion, she pointedly says nothing.
This ambiguity leaves open a wide window of interpretation for any production. Sandberg-Zakian says she led a “choose-your-own-adventure” rehearsal one day, playing out a handful of different endings. She hadn’t yet settled on one.
“It's categorized as a comedy, and yet it's a play that has sexual assault, wrongful imprisonment and several near-instances of capital punishment,” she says. “How do you find the right tone for a comedy about horrifying things? In the end, maybe ‘Measure for Measure’ is a comedy about the tragedy of the justice system.”
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