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Measure for Measure -07/21/1998

By William Shakespeare.  Cast: Eric Kramer, Rebecca MacLean, Philip Johnson, Timothy Kane, Deb Heinig, Christopher Johnson, Tandy Cronyn, Steve Young, Brad Johnson, Erin Schneider, Jamie Axtell, Annmarie Benedict, Mary Catherine Burke, Joshua Coomer, Peter Daddabo, John Fischer, Glynka L. Fritz, Ravi Gahunia, Alex Kitay, Mark Larson, Andres Munar, Carrie Lee Patterson, Christopher Peterson, Christopher Prentice, Jessica Schulte, Ryan Swikle, Jay Whittaker, Dan Wolfe.  Director: Calvin MacLean.  Costume Designer: Jeanette deJong.  Scenic Design: Michelle Ney.   Lighting Designer: J. William Ruyle.  Sound Designer: Roderick Peeples.  Dramaturg: William Woodson.

Illinois Shakespeare Festival 98

Through August 7 in repertory.  Ewing Manor, Bloomington, and Westhoff Theatre, Normal.  Box office: 309-438-2535.


Illinois Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Calvin MacLean always seems to find a new angle, a new edge, when he directs the Bard. So it's no surprise his take on "Measure for Measure" is distinctive, intriguing and edgy.

Commonly termed one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays, "Measure For Measure" operates on two very different levels.

There's the high drama, where a hypocritical public official in Vienna sentences a man to death for the crime of premarital sex, and then turns around and tries to seduce the condemned man's sister, a novice nun. (You can almost picture the Lifetime movie -- "When Power Corrupts: the Sister Isabella Story.")

But there's also bawdy comedy, as the strict no-sex edict wreaks havoc among an underworld of whores and pimps.

Making those mismatched halves work within one play is definitely tricky, but director MacLean's cynical, brash approach melds them together like flip sides of the same coin. With the action pushed forward to today's Vienna, the sleazy denizens of the street seem like a natural outgrowth of the cold, repressive government above.

By choosing this setting and filling the production with tape recorders and boomboxes, MacLean seems to be telling us that moral hypocrisy and official misconduct never go out of style.  That idea certainly makes sense -- this plot of self-righteous government types lusting after pretty young things might well have been ripped from today's headlines (or yesterday's, or the month or year or decade before that...)

This "Measure for Measure" is beautifully staged, with excellent big scenes and small moments alike, and some very striking stage pictures. An opening montage, Mariana's entrance, Isabella and Angelo on their knees, the Duke's return...all visually memorable.

Michelle Ney's scenic design, where garish graffiti competes for space with Byzantine icons, underlines the play's conflicts and emphasizes the strength of the production.  Jeanette deJong's costume design is equally well-focused, as is Roderick Peeples' relentless, driving sound design. Philip Johnson stands out among the principals with his pale, chilly, scary version of Angelo, the man at the top who offers virtuous Isabella the choice of his bed or her brother's head.

Johnson is almost robotic at the onset, but he pushes Angelo to a tortured place, and it's an impressive journey.

Both Eric Kramer, as the Duke who absents Vienna and sets all the events in motion, and Rebecca MacLean, as Isabella, who just wants to be a nun but keeps enflaming men's passions, project skill and intelligence. Although there are times when they seem a bit distant, they do make the play's last ambiguous moment resonate well.

Among the supporting players, I especially liked Timothy Kane's slippery hipster Lucio, hiding behind shades and an oily smile; Tandy Cronyn's
sharp Mistress Overdone, who looks a bit like Erica Kane in her snazzy red dress; Deb Heinig's Gen X Mariana (although what she sees in Angelo I'll never know); and Brad Johnson's baby-faced Claudio, who really does look like he could be Isabella's brother.

"Measure for Measure" is not an easy play, and this production makes it uneasier and darker than ever.  But director MacLean makes it clear he has something to say.  Now if he could only get a few busloads of politicos in to listen...

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