Measure for Measure is known as one of Shakespeare’s four “problem plays” for a reason—it has a lot of them. It’s a comedy that doesn’t know if it wants to be funny, a morality tale with a maddeningly ambiguous villain, and a story driven by what is possibly the playwright’s worst “hidden identity” gimmick.
What it also has is the potential to be one of Shakespeare’s most powerful statements on politics and the nature of power. But you likely wouldn’t know that unless you saw director Tyne Rafaeli’s production of Measure for Measure this summer at Santa Cruz Shakespeare. I certainly didn’t, after having seen a handful of well-intentioned but disappointing takes on the play in the past. The question is: how did she do it? And in speaking to Rafaeli about how SCS’ triumphant success with Measure for Measure came to be, I discovered the answers were often surprising. For those who were as curious as I was about how a Shakespearean problem child can be rehabilitated, I’ve broken down what I think are five key decisions by Rafaeli that made this production work so perfectly, and what she told me about them.
No Lazy ‘Satire’
Rafaeli felt the play about a Duke (played by Rowan Vickers) who goes undercover among his people had a lot to say to contemporary audiences about power and government. But, thankfully, she made a point of not trying to turn the play’s villain, Angelo (played by David Graham Jones) into Donald Trump: “I did want to avoid a direct reference to our current leader. There is a place for that kind of direct satire. But I felt like I would have to manipulate the play so much to fit into that time and place that the play would be lost.”
Comedy: Less Equals More
One of the reasons Measure for Measure is known as a “problem play” is that the tone careens wildly between comedy and serious drama. Rafaeli was able to find a cast that could handle such shifts, but she knew that wouldn’t matter unless she cut out the jokes that no longer work—or perhaps never did: “I wanted to avoid pretending it was funny in places that it just was not. That’s what I’ve definitely seen other productions do … I knew [the comedy] had to be on the dangerous, subversive side. That is a political humor, a humor that is often activated when people are under extreme danger or under extreme pressure. That was the kind of humor I wanted.”
Making the Villain Tragic
Angelo is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult characters; he can be played a number of ways, including as a sniveling hypocrite or mustache-twirling arch-villain. Rafaeli wanted to bring out his tragic qualities, as power and lust corrupt him: “There’s this deep humanity at the center of the play, because we could all be Angelo. I was very lucky with the actor that we had, because he’s such a smart and understated and good person that I was really happy to start from that place to build this person who does this terrible thing. As much as you’re experiencing the hope in it, there’s also the other sense that we could all fall under a particular set of circumstances.”
Creating a Youth Movement
Most often, the Duke is played as an older ruler; Rafaeli’s casting of a young Duke gave the play a new energy and hope: “It sounds so simplistic and crazy, but what I keep remembering is we’re still in the process of figuring out how to live—what the best way is to live with each other. Like this whole conversation about statues and about what we do with our history. And the Duke is really our guide through this. He’s trying to figure out how to rule. I think that’s very compelling. I wish I could say this was intentional, but it wasn’t—Rowan Vickers, who plays the Duke, came into the casting process kind of late in the game. And he’s so good. The Duke is also, every time I’ve seen it, played by someone twice his age. And I think there was something about having a young Duke that really helped crack the piece open. It helped re-frame it somehow in a way that was really powerful.”
A New Interpretation for a Troubled Ending
The ending of Measure for Measure is downright bizarre, with the Duke proposing to Isabella (played by Lindsey Rico) out of the blue. Rafaeli and company asked some hard questions, and re-interpreted a key line, with Isabella—who has proved her integrity and virtue throughout—assuming the throne at the end in a powerful reading of the enignmatic scene: “The ending, I kind of took the scary road, which was that we were going to have to really find our version of it. But we created the ending as a company. Because we had a young duke who was really questioning what it is to be a leader, and not looking back on his reign—it wasn’t full of regret, or any kind of weariness. It was full of energy and inquisitiveness about the future, and how should he deal with the reign that is approaching. In really investigating that question, it very organically revealed itself that he had found the leader in Isabella. As we were starting to track their relationship, we could not find romantic love in it. We could find deep admiration, and deep respect. That was the thing we were investigating in their relationship, and it just revealed itself that ‘what’s yours is mine, and mine is yours,’ which is his line at the end, was not about romantic love, it was about the throne.”
‘Measure for Measure’ runs through Sept. 2 at the Grove, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. For more details and to purchase tickets, go to santacruzshakespeare.org.
How to create a problem when there isn’t one: make a binary division; discover some things don’t fit; label these a problem; repeat uncritically for years. Originally used in the 1890s to describe then-innovative plays dealing with social problems, the term slipped in meaning when critic F. S. Boas applied it to those Shakespeare plays that didn’t fit the traditional forms of tragedy or comedy.
Having bought into the outdated label, Polopoli’s seeks to justify it by listing Measure for Measure’s alleged problems. “It’s a comedy that doesn’t know if it wants to be funny”: how about it wants to be realistic, and therefore funny in the middle of life-or-death moments and vice versa? “A morality play with a maddeningly ambiguous villain”: in other words, a more sophisticated examination of morality. “A story driven by … the playwright’s worst ‘hidden identity’ gimmick”: turning something that makes allegorical sense into believable human motivation is what actors and directors do. It’s their job, not a problem.
There is, however, one problem Palopoli fails to mention. What are we to make of a critic who, despite having seen several productions of the play (and presumably having read it) failed to realize it was “one of Shakespeare’s most powerful statements on politics and the nature of power” and yet who, as a result, came up with this enlightening interview?