Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is onstage at the Lantern and, like always, there’s a moment in the play that makes me nervous. A powerful man is struck by a would-be nun who eloquently pleads for her beloved sibling’s life—and the man muses that perhaps he’s in love with her.
Reasons to squirm
Angelo (Ben Dibble) is deputy to the Duke of Vienna, who’s temporarily left his post. In the Duke’s absence, Angelo revives an obscure law and sentences a young man to death. His sister, the convent novice Isabella (Claire Inie-Richards), goes to Angelo’s house to beg for his mercy. Afterwards, Angelo declares that he’s captivated by her.
This is Shakespeare, after all. Love at first sight is canon in the Bard’s works. Romeo and Juliet. Twelfth Night. As You Like It. A Midsummer Night's Dream (albeit with some divine intervention). But it’s troubling in Measure for Measure, given the characters’ stakes—and doubly troubling if you know what happens next. So when the audience begins to laugh during this scene—which they inevitably do, especially when Angelo is played by an actor as consistently charming and likeable as Ben Dibble—I start to squirm. I am worried about the direction the rest of the play will take. And when it’s 2019, #MeToo is still very much on my mind, and Measure for Measure is being directed by a middle-aged, cisgender white man (Charles McMahon), I have reason to squirm.
Seventeenth-century spoiler alert
To the extent that it’s possible to spoil a play that premiered in 1603, here’s what happens after Angelo declares, to himself and the audience, that he loves Isabella: He offers to spare her brother’s life in exchange for sex. I’ve seen the scene staged as a tense conversation and I’ve seen it staged as attempted rape, but as the plot goes, the latter is no worse than the former. In both cases—and I shouldn’t need to say this, but here goes—what we’re seeing isn’t a profession of love. It’s an exercise of power.
When the laughter stops
When Angelo is played for aw-shucks-he’s-just-a-fool-in-love laughs, it can make it much easier to forgive him his (major) transgression. Boys will be boys, right? Measure for Measure is classified as a comedy, right? To quote another of Shakespeare’s plays: all’s well that ends well, right?
Which made what happened next in the Lantern’s production so remarkable: slowly but surely, the audience stopped laughing. By the time Angelo gets right down to his point and propositions Isabella, the audience was silent. The pivot was subtle, deft, and very effective. Inie-Richards, all eyes under her novice’s wimple, conveyed so much emotion in this scene, so much turmoil when she pondered Angelo’s promise to destroy her reputation if she reported his behavior, that there was a part of me that wanted to walk down from the risers and hug her. Me too, Isabella. Me too.
The next time Dibble appeared on stage, it was easy to forget how generally likeable he is.
What I won’t spoil
It would be great if the only creepy dude in Measure for Measure were Angelo. But no. The Duke—in disguise as a Franciscan monk and covertly helping Isabella save her brother, Claudio (Chris Anthony)—also develops feelings for Isabella.
Lawton is predictably strong as the Duke, alternating between funny and earnest and charming. It’s not hard to see why he might be a better partner for Isabella than Angelo…were Isabella, you know, not about to take her orders as a nun. If Angelo is Harvey Weinstein in this scenario, the Duke is the woke misogynist. So while I won’t give away how McMahon handled this (actually textually important) turn at the conclusion of the play, I will tell you that I found it very, very satisfying.
An excellent ensemble
Inie-Richards, Dibble, and Lawton are the backbone of the play and without such strong performances, a play as problematic as Measure for Measure could easily fall apart. But they aren’t solely responsible for carrying the production. Anthony is excellent as the handsome, broody Claudio, and wears his internal conflict well. As Escalus, Kirk Wendell Brown gives his fellow actors an excellent straight man. Jered McLenigan plays Lucio with vaudevillian enthusiasm that overcomes the character’s general unlikability (though make no mistake, Lucio is also a #MeToo transgressor); Adam Hammet played Pompey to cockney perfection (which made a lot more sense when I got home and read in his bio that he’s actually a Brit); and Charlotte Northeast (a personal acquaintance of mine) wears more hats—literally and figuratively—than anyone else in the cast, playing characters that range from clownish to sincere and making sure the audience loves each of them.
It’s through the strength of all the players—and a fresh, modern take on Measure for Measure that nods to the present day without shoehorning it into the text—that the Lantern’s production succeeds, answering my early anxiety with a gratifying finish.
What, When, Where
Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Charles McMahon. Through April 21, 2019, at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.