Measure for Measure

Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theater

The Importance of Being Earnest

Court Theatre

“Good afternoon, dear Algernon,” says lofty Lady Bracknell to her nephew in The Importance of Being Earnest, “I hope you are behaving very well.” “I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta,” the young man replies. Her icy response is sharp and sure: “That’s not quite the same thing. In fact the two things rarely go together.”

Out of the tension between private emotion and public conduct, hypocrisy is born. So is fine dark comedy in the classic plays being presented by two of Chicago’s leading Equity companies: Shakespeare Repertory’s Measure for Measure and Court Theatre’s Importance of Being Earnest. The scripts boast two of English drama’s most compellingly corrupt authority figures–Angelo, the law-and-order lecher in Measure for Measure, and Earnest’s imperious arriviste Augusta Bracknell. As played by Greg Vinkler and Denise du Maurier, these are meaty roles indeed–two of the most entertaining performances on local stages this month.

As it happens, both shows are set in 1894. That’s the time director Barbara Gaines has chosen for her staging of Shakespeare’s 1604 study of sexual politics; it’s also the year Oscar Wilde wrote his famous satire of upper-class courtship. On the eve of a new century, this was a world of elegance masking debauchery, of impossibly rigid codes of conduct meant to restrain unstoppable eros, of class consciousness posturing as moral propriety. In this world people can go to jail for committing “indecent acts”–that is, for having sex in any way not approved by the powers that be. Measure for Measure’s Claudio, who impregnates his beloved Juliet before they are married, is condemned to death by the ducal deputy Angelo. Wilde, exposed as a homosexual, wasn’t sentenced to capital punishment, but he might as well have been (he died a broken man a few years after his prison term); and the threat of scandal stemming from a double life is the running joke in Earnest, about two insincere fellows who both adopt the alias “Ernest” to court a pair of pretty girls.

Wilde’s light, airy script was, its author said, “written by a butterfly for butterflies”–but though it floats like a butterfly, it sometimes stings like a bee. Its characters are caricatures, really, all attitude and epigram–George Bernard Shaw, a fan of Wilde’s earlier (and less durable) plays, rightly called this one “heartless” and “sinister”–and the plot’s farcical intrigues escalate to ludicrously contrived proportions as Wilde mocks the mannered comedies and melodramas of his day. But Earnest transcends its shallower aspects by delivering some of the funniest lines in literature–funniest not only because of what they say but because of what they don’t. Behind the stylish jokes about marriage, money, and morality lurk naughty hints of the desires, both erotic and economic, that color the prejudices of Wilde’s society. (Appropriately, Linda Buchanan’s set consists of a rigidly square-edged windowed wall, over and behind which hang red curtains.)

Measure for Measure, meanwhile, is dark and scabrous as it depicts what Earnest glancingly suggests. Gaines’s staging (with the aid of Michael S. Philippi’s memorably impressionistic scenic design) starkly contrasts the prim world of proper society–the court over which Angelo presides, and the convent from which Claudio’s virginal sister Isabella journeys to petition Angelo for her brother’s life–and the lusty underworld whose licentiousness infects Angelo when, struck by Isabella’s beauty, he offers to free Claudio in return for sex with her.

Shakespeare’s resolution of an outrageous situation is almost as contrived as Wilde’s. But Measure for Measure’s strong suit isn’t plot, it’s the rich characters. They’re complex, contradictory, and confused–and Gaines’s great strength as a director is that she knows when to support them and when to challenge them. Shakespeare Rep’s Measure for Measure is a feast of fine acting. Besides Vinkler’s lacerating Angelo, special attention is due William Meisle’s sternly serious Duke; the clowning of Michael McAlister, Scott Parkinson, and Tony Dobrowolski as two pimps and their arresting officer; A.C. Smith’s stiff but compassionate jailer; Stephen Trovillion’s Wildean dandy Lucio; Karen Vaccaro’s outlandish whore Overdone (who sings “Take, O take those lips away” in the throes of oral-erotic passion); and Lia D. Mortensen’s fresh-scrubbed, brave, but anguished Isabella. When she cries out against Angelo’s state-sanctioned abuse of her–“To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?”–her pain is as immediate as the issues raised in this problematic but powerful work, which (as Shaw said) shows Shakespeare “ready and willing to start at the 20th century if the 17th would only let him.”

Earnest, on the other hand, as staged here by Nicholas Rudall, is sturdy but seldom inspired (except for Virgil Johnson’s endlessly amusing and inventive costumes). Competently played by a cast who are noticeably not as young as the script says, it too often lacks the rarefied refinement and epicene stylishness that seep through the supremely witty lines like sweet poison. Larry Yando’s flamboyantly foppish, ludicrously curly-haired Algernon is especially off the mark. Though he’s sometimes very funny, he’d be funnier if the audience believed he actually wanted the girl he’s courting.

The all-important exception is Denise du Maurier, whose granite-visaged, gorgonic Augusta Bracknell is every bit as imperial as her Roman namesake. In her tight-corseted constriction of gait and speech, we can viscerally feel the unbearable tension between desire and duty, feeling and behavior.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.