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Measure for Measure

As the basis for modern theatre, the works of Shakespeare offer endless opportunities for companies to develop and expand their talent pool. Now in its second season, 5th Wall's production of Measure for Measure offers a mix of interesting, in-progress, and inconsistent performances delivered within a decidedly comedic telling of one of the most autobiographically complex stories in the canon.1

Alexander Trulinger as the Duke (incognito) and OD Duhu as Escalus
Alexander Trulinger as the Duke (incognito)
and OD Duhu as Escalus
Photo: 5th Wall Productions
At the center of the tale is the Duke (Alexander Trulinger), who temporarily appoints Angelo (Charles McEwans) to take over the realm, so that, in the interests of a test and lesson, he may disguise himself as a friar and observe and orchestrate various events that follow. Trulinger is the master of the realm in this—at times melodramatic—production, not only as the Duke, but in his florid style and mellifluous scansion, neither of which any of the other players match.

Yet, the heart of the play belongs to Isabella (Erin Slimak), just as in all seven plays in the canon in which the principal issue concerns that of the chastity of the female lead1—a prominent conflict in the playwright's own life. Slimak's emotional performance draws our sympathy and gives us pause, as we consider the moral conflicts inherent in Isabella's monumental decision: her virginity or her brother's life.

Erin Slimak as Isabella and Charles McEwans as Angelo
Erin Slimak as Isabella
and Charles McEwans as Angelo
Photo: 5th Wall Productions
McEwans' understated, circumspect performance plays seamlessly into Angelo's deceptive fasçade, which fools Escalus (OD Duhu), the Duke's loyal lord and executive. Duhu's steady performance would benefit from playing larger, to measure up to the Duke and Isabella.

As we find throughout the canon, the Bard tells his tale in parallel with different castes: the nobility (the Duke and eventually Isabella); the gentry (Claudio and Juliet); and the rabble and rude mechanicals (Lucio, Elbow, Pompey, Froth, Mistress Overdone, and Bernadine). Again, greater command of scansion and elocution, as well as some comedic chops, are needed for these characters to make their mark.

While rough in sections from beginning to end, the Bard's lessons, for both himself and his audience, particularly regarding the hypocritical nature of Puritanism (or fundamentalism, as we now call it), shine through.

5th Wall Production's presentation of Measure for Measure runs through June 4th. For tickets: 5th-wall-productions.ticketleap.com.

Bob Bows

Footnote:

1Seven of the 37 plays written or overseen by Edward de Vere are about infidelity and bed tricks, topics that are directly drawn from events in the playwright's life; namely, when de Vere visited the continent in 1576 and learned that his new wife, Anne Cecil, was pregnant; and then, upon returning to England and for a number of years following, refusing to live with Anne, while leading a bohemian life—including an affair and pregnancy with Anne Vavosor (the dark lady of the Sonnets), one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting—which caused quite a scandal at court. De Vere's affair with Vavasor also resulted eventually in a blood feud between their families, the battles from which are documented (down to the exact same number of confrontations and casualities) in the street fights in Romeo and Juliet.

Anne's father—William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's chief of state for almost her entire reign—who, in one of his many roles (master of the Court of Wards), had previously served as de Vere's guardian and "caretaker" of his lands (a portion of which Cecil distributed for his own political and economic benefit, as noted symbolically in various places in the comedies and tragedies of the canon)—eventually convinced de Vere of his paternity via a "bed trick," a device which de Vere employs in this story and in All's Well That Ends Well.

De Vere also borrowed from a story that he ran across during his Italian sojourn, Epitia, a comedy by the Ferraran courtly novelist and playwright Giraldi Cinthio, which tells the tale of a strange Austrian emperor who decides one day to take leave of his office, transferring power to an underling. The underling is corrupt and hypocritical; all is restored to normality, but only after the figurehead has been toppled and the true original resumes his rightful place. (Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 341)

Another possible source is the 1596 English publication of Alexandre Sylvain's rhetorical guidebook The Orator, in which he tells of a ravished maid who demands first that her rapist be made her husband and then that he be sentenced to death—the same punishment advocated by the Duke in Measure for Measure." (Ibid, Anderson, p. 303)

The playwright dramatizes his own life, including his observations and wishes, through the Duke, a position with which he was familiar, given that his cousin, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was beheaded, and with him the last true Dutchy in England. So, while the Duke in Measure for Measure outwardly explains that he requires a vacation from his subjects, the political pressures that require his absence (in de Vere's case, the Queen and her court's displeasure with his behavior) is the principal motivating factor for his absence, as it is metaphorically represented here, and by which, both in the play and in his life, he makes things right.

Such background, ignored by orthodox Stratfordian scholars, undermines any attempt on their part to explain the quixotic nature of the Duke and his decision making, which would have been understood implicity if the play was performed at court, as were most of the playwright's works, before they made their way to the public stage (which Stratfordians assume were the first performances, to shoehorn their man into someone else's life and work).

Much comedy in the story springs from the Duke's disguise as a friar, while at the same time allowing the Duke to create a sophisticated and sometimes puzzling series of hoops for Isabella, Angelo, Escalus and others to jump through, so that in the end the Duke (de Vere) has made plain the moral lesson that he himself experienced. The breadth and depth of de Vere's artistic achievement here is astonishing: once again coming clean to the Queen and the court, elevating his moral lesson to one of universal significance, and doing so in language that continues to set the standard.

De Vere digs deep into personal history to do this. When Isabella advocates for truth telling, she practically recites the same words that de Vere wrote to Burghley: "Truth is truth, though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true."

Isabella: It is not truer he is Angelo
  Than this is all as true as it is strange.
  Nay, it is ten times true. For truth is truth
  To th'end of reckoning.
Duke: Away with her! Poor soul.
  She speaks this in the infirmity of sense!



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