MEASURE FOR MEASURE
at the Theatre Building
A lot of subversive undermining–of theatrical realism, social roles, sexual morality–goes on in Caryl Churchill’s 1979 comedy Cloud Nine. Women play men and vice versa. A white man impersonates a black man. Adults depict children. Supposed heterosexuals turn out to be gay (though not vice versa). Masculine behavior and feminine expectations are challenged. Though the action spans a century, the biggest change isn’t in the fashions or even in the loss of the British empire–it’s in the way an era with a rigid familial code was replaced by an unsettled social experiment that includes found families.
That’s a big agenda for this gender-bending play, which is too clever in its clutter and too fragmented in its focus. Churchill’s script sometimes betrays its origins in an actors’ workshop; a lot here seems written in italics. Nonetheless the play makes its characters, stylized in the first act and solid in the second, say more about the forces behind feminism and its challenge than a score of tracts. In rotating repertory with Pierre Marivaux’ The Triumph of Love, Court Theatre’s revival is crisp and clean, staged by Nicholas Rudall with wit, warmth, and a sure grasp of the difference between the play’s stylized satire and its convictions.
The first act is set in a British colony in Africa at the height of Victoria’s reign, when the white man’s burden weighed most heavily on others. Here it’s strictly women, children, and natives last: sexual and political oppression are inseparable. A rigid sexual hierarchy dictates that men protect their weaker loved ones against the oversexed, unreliable natives, while the women must guard against their own errant sexuality and that of others.
It’s the perfect formula for hypocrisy. Clive, the colonial administrator, is having an affair with a butch widow who’s a sexual iconoclast, while his demure wife Betty pursues a bisexual explorer. Their son Edward, who throbs for the explorer, is reprimanded for his effeminacy, while his governess pines for Betty but is forced into a miserable marriage with the explorer. Duty and sacrifice comprise Clive’s credo, but the sacrifice always comes from others–until the much-abused black servant Joshua grabs a rifle.
With the Victorians so little was permitted that every revolt mattered. In the second act, set in 1979 London, so much is permitted that little matters. The characters have lost the sexual repression that freed the Victorians to build their empires, but they’re now fearful of intimacy, bored with domesticity, or horny as hell. Which means they’re desperate enough to experiment.
In 1979 psychology determines destiny more than anatomy. Finally freed of Clive, Betty has discovered her sexuality through masturbation, sometimes three times a day. Now actively gay, Edward quarrels with his promiscuous lover Gerry, while his sister Victoria is on the verge of divorcing her pseudoliberal husband Martin and striking up a nearly sexual friendship with Lin, a lesbian. At the very end both Bettys, past and present, embrace in sisterly solidarity.
Crooning Victorian ballads and the funky title song, Rudall’s seven superb cast members testify to the resilience of human nature–the central tenet of Churchill’s play. John Reeger plays both the pompous hypocrite Clive and the modern, needy Edward. Kyle Colerider-Krugh plays the squeamish, frightened Victorian Betty as well as Gerry, Edward’s rough-trade lover. Kate Collins doubles as Betty’s doll-loving son and the modern Victoria. Lisa Tejero is the imperious mother-in-law and the tough-loving Lin, while Linda Kimbrough deliciously plays Edward’s lesbian governess and the older, kinder 1979 Betty. Bruce Orendorf deftly plays the anticolonialist Joshua, with ill-concealed menace, as well as Lin’s bratty child. Finally Jeffrey Hutchinson is both the intrepid explorer with a yen for forbidden love and Victoria’s modern husband, a philanderer with a taste for occult orgies.
One of Shakespeare’s least pleasant comedies, Measure for Measure also seethes with hypocrisy. Here it’s the sexual scheming of Angelo, a puritan who’s asked to rule Venice while the true duke, in disguise, observes the effects of some hard old laws that punish extramarital sex.
Shakespeare well knew how “power changes purpose”; in prosecuting the letter of the law, Angelo forfeits its spirit. He loses his virtue when he falls in love with the virtuous Isabella; discarding his law-and-order image, he engages in what we would call sexual harassment. But rigidly protecting her purity, Isabella refuses Angelo, though submitting to him could save her brother, whom Angelo has sentenced to death for fornication.
A lot in this play feels harsh to modern audiences: Isabella’s hard-hearted chastity, the ghoulish tricks the disguised duke plays on his subjects, and the trumped-up happy ending in which Isabella is all but forced to marry the duke who cruelly deceived her about her brother’s death. Oddly enough, this play is more arresting because it thwarts our expectations, because it disturbs us in ways Shakespeare never could have imagined.
This inaugural production by Parabola Productions is blessed with a superb Isabella in Sara Nichols, who plays every moment with awesome concentration and immersion, and an excellent Angelo in David Pudwill. Nichols’s instant fury on learning that she must prostitute herself to save her brother helps to explain her character’s inflexible rectitude. Pudwill’s Angelo is a fittingly complex amalgam of intellectual rigor and sexual arousal, with the latter quickly undermining his integrity. There’s nothing theoretical about his corruption; it seeps from the inside out.
But Ted Slabach’s duke is never grounded in the moral ambiguity that might make his machinations palatable to a modern audience. He’s played as a mad trickster, little wiser than Angelo and much more obnoxious.
Perhaps director Lisa Olivarez, whose staging is mainly comic, treats the duke as a source of comedy because the “humor” provided by the loutish constable Elbow (Daren Curry) and the weaselly liar Lucio (Kevin Theis) is so lame. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t work. Intent on his high jinks rather than on rectifying justice, Slabach’s duke carries on as if nothing crucial were at stake. That’s a shame when Nichols and Pudwill have worked so hard to make us care.