“Be absolute for death: either death or life / Shall thereby be the sweeter.” So begins the Duke’s most famous speech in Measure for Measure, a twisted bit of advice to a condemned man that ranks among Shakespeare’s most bewilderingly enigmatic passages. Like Hamlet, this character wields extraordinary rhetorical power, yet unlike the Dane, his words lack ethical substance, and in context amount to little more than the ravings of a thoroughgoing skeptic. Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s nihilistic farewell to comedy, makes an exceedingly apt choice for 2019, the year that brought us not only the ongoing Trumpocalypse in Washington but also a seemingly unending stream of sordid tales from the lives of priapic rich and powerful men who exploit their authority in service to their lusts.
This observation supplied one of the reasons that Ensemble Theatre’s artistic director Jonathan Fox singled out Measure for Measure as the opening show in the company’s new season. He was already considering it when, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, lines from the play, such as Isabella’s plaintive question “to whom should I complain?” started popping up online as memes. “It’s not only the relevance of the play to the #MeToo movement,” Fox told me last week, “it’s also the feeling that political hypocrisy of all kinds has never been more on people’s minds than it is right now.”
In anticipation of the challenges posed by this monumental and tricky play, Fox has assembled an all-star cast. Trevor Peterson, so memorable in both Death of a Salesman and Dancing Lessons at ETC last season, will be Claudio, the young man caught in a web of double dealing whose fate depends on compromising his sister’s chastity. Peterson described Claudio as “a bit of a playboy” who feels like “maybe giving your body isn’t such a bad idea,” especially as he lingers in the shadow of death by execution at the hands of the fiendish Angelo (Richard Baird). AK Murtadha, whom audiences will recognize from his appearances here in Macbeth and Intimate Apparel, will take on the truly massive role of the Duke, a part he called “complex and loaded.” There are no small parts in Measure for Measure, which deploys one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing subplots through roles such as Lucio (Brian Ibsen), Escalus (Paul Sandberg), Mariana (Paige Tautz), Elbow (Robert Lesser), and Mistress Overdone (Tiffany Story).
Of all the casting choices, however, one stands apart as Fox’s most daring. Lily Gibson, the Indy Award–winning star of Rubicon’s Nibroc Trilogy and the lead in Ensemble’s recent production of Tennessee Williams’s Baby Doll, will play Isabella, the novice whose fierce defense of her virginity against the extortion of Angelo lies at the center of the drama. Gibson’s youthful and fair appearance guarantees that the threat of sexual violence against her will shock. What remains to be seen is how the actress will build a performance that begins from that vulnerable place and then moves toward the remarkable toughness and presence of mind that Isabella achieves in the final acts.
Fox has devised some interesting concepts for staging the play that will bring it solidly into the present moment. Recorded and live video projections will be used to convey the sense that these characters are under surveillance, and that their lives, like ours, exist for all eternity somewhere online. For sheer inventiveness, Measure for Measure stands with Shakespeare’s greatest achievements. The language sparkles with metaphysical wit even as the story plunges deeper into the darkest recesses of sexualized hysteria. See it if you dare.
4•1•1 | Measure for Measure will be at Ensemble Theatre Company from Thursday, October 3, through Sunday, October 20. For tickets and information, see etcsb.org or call 965-5400.