Reviewed by James Karas
There is nothing unusual about members of the audience sitting on the stage within a few feet of the actors. But I am not aware of a performance where all of the audience is on the stage and the auditorium is dark. That is how Groundling Theatre Company stages Measure for Measure at The Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto.
About half a dozen rows of seats are installed at the back of the stage and the performance takes place in front of them with only a few people in the front row of the auditorium,
The production is directed by Graham Abbey and has some of the most experienced actors from the Stratford Festival in it. The production of the very problematic play is done in modern dress on a set that consists of a couple of benches, a chair and a desk.
The first thing one notices when the lights go on is that Shakespeare’s Duke becomes a Duchess played by Stratford star Lucy Peacock. The Duchess cannot maintain law and order in Vienna especially as it relates to moral turpitude offences (i.e. sexual conduct) and she decides to give temporary power to Lord Angelo to crack the whip and get rid of the brothels, pimps and prostitutes that have stained the city’s morality. Tom McCamus plays Angelo, and like Peacock, he is an expert at the job.
A gentleman named Claudio (Charlie Gallant) is condemned to die and his lovely sister Isabella goes to Lord Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Isabella (Michelle Giroux) has entered a convent with a view to becoming a nun and her pleas to Angelo if not morally persuasive become sexually arousing. Angelo will pardon her brother if she sleeps with him.
Giroux would corrupt the morals of a saint let alone a power-hungry Angelo.
There is another side to the play’s theme of political power, abuse of authority and sexual perversion. That is the comic side that Abbey downplays to the point of making it almost disappear. The loose-tongued braggadocio Lucio (Brent Carver) has comic opportunities that can balance the serious side of the play. Mistress Overdone (Karen Robinson) and her servant Pompey (Steven Sutcliffe) should have us laughing heartily and not producing the occasional snicker. Unfortunately that is all we get.
The convict Bernadine (Mark Crawford) who is too drunk to be executed gets all the laughs but his appearance is too brief to do justice to the play’s comic side.
Measure for Measure can get quite ponderous as it works its way through the disguises and revelations and ends with some pretty unsatisfactory marriages. At the end, the Duke offers his hand in marriage to Isabella who has foresworn any thought of going to a monastery. She does not reply and it is open to a director to decide what Isabella will do. Stay ambiguously on the stage while the Duke departs? Follow him? Go in a different direction?
The issue becomes a bit more difficult when the Duke is a Duchess who offers Isabella “what’s mine is your, and what’s yours is mine.” The only thing that Isabella has is her virginity and it is unlikely that the Duchess and the would-be-nun will walk off the stage holding hands unless the director wants to suggest something really revolutionary.
Abbey has Isabella remain on the stage and she slowly removes the cross from around her neck, places it on the back of a chair and goes off in a different direction.
That is a fine scene but the production needs a balanced offering of the comic and the dramatic for the play’s heavy-handedness to be relieved.
This is a bold step into Shakespearean production and in the hands of Stratford’s finest we can get some extraordinary theatre. How they pay the bills is another question.
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare continues in repertory with The Winter’s Tale until February 19, 2017 at The Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ontario. http://groundlingtheatre.com/