At the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey
Set and Lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Jenna McCutchen
Music composed and performed by George Meanwell
Cast Brent Carver
A bold move in gender –bending that holds up almost until the end where it falls apart. Instead of a payoff that leaves you heartsick, it’s a let down because it doesn’t.
The Story. The Duke of Vienna realizes how things in the city have gotten out of hand and decides to leave the city and put his deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo is a straight-laced stickler for the rules and the Duke feels Angelo will set everything right. However the Duke will always be close by ‘looking in’ dressed in disguise as a priest. Angelo begins purging the city by enforcing the law no matter how archaic. He sentences a man named Claudio to death for getting his girlfriend Juliet pregnant, even though they love each other. His sister Isabella is about to become a nun when she is asked to plead Claudio’s case with Angelo. She is eloquent. Angelo is adamant. He is also smitten with Isabella and says that if she sleeps with him he’d free her brother. As she says to herself, “dearer than our brother is our chastity.” Dilemmas. Trickery. Subterfuge. All is almost righted after the Duke comes back and rebukes Angelo. But then the Duke has a proposition for Isabella that leaves one heartsick.
The Production. As with the production of The Winter’s Tale that plays in rep with Measure for Measure, this Groundling Theatre Company’s production plays on a raised platform on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. The audience also sits on the stage, on risers. It makes for an intimate experience. There is a desk stage right and two benches stage left. The benches are reconfigured as the scene requires. Everyone is in modern dress. The men are in suits and ties and the women in dresses.
As with The Winter’s Tale Graham Abbey directs (he is also the founder and artistic director of the Groundling Theatre Company). In Measure for Measure Graham Abbey has envisioned the Duke as The Duchess and is played by the estimable Lucy Peacock. All the pronouns are changed to reflect that the part is now called The Duchess and is played by a woman. Lucy Peacock as the Duchess is formidable. She wears a black pant suit. There is authority and a commanding manner but there is the mystery—how did she allow Vienna to get so out of hand regarding law and order. Her solution is simple, let the cold-eyed Angelo set it right. Put the blame on her second in command.
Initially Tom McCamus as Angelo is slightly stooped, a company man who follows what his boss the Duchess tells him. He seems rather easy-going even. But when Angelo gets the power to act on behalf of the Duchess then I think I detect that McCamus straightens his back a touch and his head is up and there is now a cold bloodedness about him. He is untouchable until he sees Isabella and she pleads her brother’s case. Then he’s smitten and uses the full force of the law to get what he wants. After all, he says to her, who would believe her if she told anyone what Angelo had proposed? The situation chills the blood. We are now seeing such behaviour south of our border—people unfit to hold power are now wielding it.
As Isabella, Michelle Giroux lends dignity, grace and reasoned intelligence to a woman who just wants to take her vows and enter the convent. But she is thwarted when she comes up against the powerful Angelo. You envision a trapped animal in Giroux’s gripping performance and you feel heartsick for her.
Brent Carver is a fascinating Lucio. Who is this guy? Is he a man of the seedier side of Vienna who knows all the secrets of people of power? Is he a man in court somehow? He knows how to play and manipulate people. He urges Isabella to fight harder for her brother’s life with Angelo. Carver makes Lucio slick, oily, sly and seductive. Patrick Galligan is courtly and elegant as Escalus and just as gruff and lowly as Abhorson. Abhorson is a master beheader…dirty work but someone has to do it.
As with The Winter’s Tale the whole cast is exemplary. Graham Abbey has guided them with precision so that relationships are established and consistent. There are moments you want to look away but are compelled to watch.
I can appreciate Abbey’s bold move to gender-bend the role of the Duke into the Duchess. And for almost all of the production this switch works, but not for all of it. The last scene falls flat. In the text ‘proper’, The Duke offers himself to Isabella as a husband, ignoring her desire to be a nun. He wants her and that’s that. He’s not a brute. He is rather polite. But the reality is like a punch to the stomach, for not only Isabella but also the audience. With the gender bent and the Duke is a Duchess, I don’t see any hint in Lucy Peacock’s performance that she wants Isabella. Somehow we believe the Duke when he says he wants to marry her, but not when the Duchess says it. This is not Peacock’s fault. I just think it’s a concept that just doesn’t work.
Comment. The human stakes are high in Measure for Measure. The only couple we know will be happy are Claudio and Juliet. When the Duchess orders Angelo to marry a woman he jilted years before we know down to our toes this is a lousy command. We know the union of Isabella and either the Duchess or the Duke if played by a man, will go sour because there is no love there. That said, I just love the maneuvering, manipulation, politicking and games playing in Measure for Measure. Graham Abbey and company leave us with a lot to ponder.
Groundling Theatre Company presents:
Continues to Feb. 19, 2017.
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hour. 45 minutes, approx.