Arts theater review

“Who will believe thee, Isabel?”

The Shakespeare Ensemble tackles sexism, incarceration, and injustice in a wondrous production of ‘Measure for Measure’

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Isabella (Kate Yee '20) is faced with the decision to save her incarcerated brother Claudio (John Bond '19) in 'Measure for Measure.'
Tal Scully '18

Measure for Measure
MIT Shakespeare Ensemble
Directed by Francis Xavier Norton
March 15–16 and 21–23 at 8 p.m., March 17 at 4 p.m.
La Sala de Puerto Rico

At its core, Measure for Measure is about equivalent exchange. It’s about dealing out justice. It’s also about love. It centers around a woman who has to make a difficult decision where there are only degrees of disadvantage. A patriarchal Vienna is ruled by Duke Vincentio and Angelo (Ruth Tweedy ’20) whose harsh rulings set the play into motion. The Duke leaves the city in the hands of Angelo, while the Duke disguises himself as a friar who manipulates the events in the city. The central problem is thus: before marriage, Claudio (John Bond ’19) has gotten Juliet (Lainie Beauchemin ’22) pregnant. Claudio must now be executed as declared by Angelo. To save him, his sister, Isabella (Kate Yee ’20), must give up her virginity to Angelo in exchange for her brother’s life.

I haven’t read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure yet, but I loved the production. For a play where justice isn’t so black-and-white, the set design was made to be: the stark white flooring and walls, the checkerboard painted flooring, a grey bench, a grey table. When you first step in, a nun is being shoved by a man, a dressed couple dances, two people sit around a cardboard box enjoying a pitiful meal, and in the center are seated our central couple of a sort: Isabella is putting on makeup while Angelo slips on and off a dark suit blazer. It’s an image that is reflected once again in the surprise ending, that I won’t spoil and wish you to see yourself.

Yee and Tweedy assume their roles like most performers do, but this production about manipulation is perfectly casted: Yee and Tweedy are perfect choices for Isabella and Angelo, whose intentions and desires are the heart of this play. Tweedy’s Angelo, with his sharp suit and equally sharp delivery, does justice to the character’s complex position. Angelo is a character who is easy to hate; casting a female actor doesn’t soften this. Tweedy’s Angelo towers over Isabella during their verbal spars, but after Isabella leaves his office, as he monologues after hearing Isabella’s plea for mercy, Tweedy still manages to make him sympathetic as he is tormented by his simultaneous desires of lust and justice. As he needs to appear important, Angelo slips on his spectacles as he looks out into the crowd, and in one scene, strobe lights flicker as he sweeps everything off his desk and destroys parts of the wall in frustration.

Isabella’s interactions with all the characters shift through Yee’s subtle performance. Yee’s expressive delivery feels natural, her facial expressions beckon the audience to sympathize with her as she pleads with Angelo to free her brother Claudio. She is hesitant, but grows confident as she and Angelo circle each other in his office. “My brother did love Juliet, and you tell me that he shall die for it,” accuses Isabella, practically hissing. You can’t help but empathize with Isabella, whose morality forms both her strength and weakness.

The rest of the cast forms a comedic ensemble that bring vitality and humor to a dark play. Law enforcement, played by Jude He ’21 as the Provost, Mary Dahl ’20 as Elbow — a punderful name — and Sarah Knopf ’22 as Escalus — who carries hand sanitizer to cleanse his hands — form a ridiculous yet loveable bunch whose puns and jokes are a welcome addition. But the standout role goes to Lucio, played by the flamboyant and exuberant Nelson Niu ’21 who embodies his role with the greatest enthusiasm. He riffs on the Duke to the friar, not realizing they are one and the same. He wears his red dress shirt half hanging and loose; he delivers witty lines with ease; he jumps into the audience; and never does he experience repercussions until the end. As Niu plays Froth, a different character whose lack of confidence and thick sweater are his defining traits, his versatility is to be noted. He somehow still seems as humorous as he and Pompey, played by the equally comical Alex Evenchik ’21, try to convince Escalus that their case is worth listening to.

Projections, lighting, and sound take you into an immersive, emotional experience. Slow jazz plays in the background as the lighting turns magenta, as if riffed from a cheesy film; Angelo thinks of Isabella while a clip of her swaying sensually is projected in the background. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch if you know what happens next. When Angelo assaults Isabella, they waltz together under the same lighting, but the mood is noticeably grimmer, and Yee and Tweedy play off this scene well with the clear imbalance of power. And in an emotional moment, such when Juliet visits Claudio in prison, an imprisoned Claudio is projected on the screen. Beauchemin shows off her acting chops with Juliet’s anguish. Juliet literally cannot reach through the screen to help save Claudio, just as we cannot reach through the stage to stop the events that are to come.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” that, despite being categorized as a comedy, feels like anything but. This rendition by MIT Shakespeare Ensemble leaves us feeling as if we were helpless, as if we had witnessed a tragedy because, despite the comedic relief, despite her efforts, the fate of Isabella does not change. “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” asks Angelo. Perhaps the most foreboding line is uttered by Duke Vincentio at the end — “What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” — because despite the equivalent exchange, as we watch Isabella staring silently out at us, it’s clear that this was the only injustice that is not met, measure for measure.

Update 3/21/19: The article was updated to include attribution for director Francis Xavier Norton.