Perplexed as he was by the question, “What does a woman want?” it seems likely that Sigmund Freud was unfamiliar with the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Had the Father of Psychoanalysis being paying attention, the Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales could have told him everything that he needed to know.
In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Queen Guinevere’s Court of Love gives a rapist a year and a day to find out what women really want, or else be executed. After much fruitless searching he agrees to marry a Loathly Lady and, after being asked his preference, allows the hag to decide for herself whether to appear as ugly or beautiful in public; thus the spell on her is broken and his life is spared. Although she is ridiculed for having cannily outlived too many husbands, Alisoun has a simple wisdom to share with her fellow pilgrims: that women want the ability to work their own wills, to make their own choices about their lives – essentially the same thing that men do.
What Chaucer’s Alisoun termed “sovereyntee” in the late 14th century is popularly referred to these days as “female agency,” and it’s a hot topic in post-feminist film, theater and literary criticism. A conspicuous lack of female agency in its “happy ending” is one of several factors that shoves Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure into the category of “problem plays,” and a complication with which modern theatrical companies must wrestle if a production is not to seem hopelessly dated.
In other respects, it’s a work that regularly acquires fresh relevance, with its primary themes of official misfeasance, religious hypocrisy and the corrupting influence of power. Angelo, the Duke’s deputy who ruthlessly enforces a long-dormant anti-fornication law in his liege’s pretended absence whilst using his own newfound power to demand that Isabella – a young postulant about to enter a nunnery – trade her maidenhead for her brother Claudio’s life, stands in for many a televangelist or right-wing Congressman caught with his pants down in some all-too-public place. Measure for Measure is great material, always ripe for reinterpretation; it’s just that abrupt ending, where Isabella is given no lines at all to express her reaction to the unveiled Duke’s offer of marriage, that makes things awkward.
So I am very pleased to report that the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) passes the ultimate relevance test in its new production of Measure for Measure, directed by Davis McCallum and running in repertory at Boscobel all summer along with Macbeth and As You Like It. The final scene does not sweep the issue of agency for Isabella under the rug by making her nod or skip up and down gleefully at the prospect of marrying the richest and most powerful guy in town. It lets the character – played with steely gusto by Annie Purcell – react as any modern woman would react if informed that she has no choice about her own future. Letting a Shakespeare “comedy” end on such a grim and hopeless note is an audacious creative decision, and McCallum deserves much credit for pulling no punches here.
Power (and its abuse even by the well-intentioned) is a serious business, but Measure for Measure is also loaded to the gills with funny matter, much of it so risqué that only heavily Bowdlerized versions were put on for a couple of centuries. The heroine may be a chaste nun-wannabe, her tormenter a self-righteous aristocrat and her savior a benevolent Duke in disguise, but the audience spends considerable time in the company of the riffraff of Vienna, who aren’t pleased at all with this closing down of brothels and whatnot.
And entertaining company they are: HVSF veteran Kurt Rhoads seems to be having the time of his life as he camps it up in full drag as Pompey the pimp. Zachary Fine is a complete hoot as Lucio, cheeky, disreputable best friend to Isabella’s imprisoned brother Claudio; he appears to be channeling Woody Harrelson with his Southern accent, preening strut and toothy grin. Michael Broadhurst delivers giggles aplenty in his rendering of Elbow, the malapropism-spouting constable who is essentially the same character as Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing. Jessica Love is barely recognizable in her transformation from the madam, Mistress Overdone (hunchbacked and using a walker), to Mariana, the faithful fiancée spurned by Angelo after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck.
All the more serious roles are adroitly handled as well, especially Stephen Paul Johnson as Escalus, Mark Bedard as the Provost and Shawn Fagan as the duplicitous Angelo. LeRoy McClain emotes well in the fairly thankless role of Claudio. But the true main character of Measure for Measure, with the most complex arc, is Duke Vincentio. Sean McNall holds nothing back in showing us the Duke’s weakness in wanting to delegate the most distasteful tasks of ruling to his deputy, as well as his essential goodness, compassion and cleverness in teasing out a tricky solution to Claudio’s impending doom. His scenes with Fine as Lucio arrogantly trash-talks the Duke to his monkish alter ego are absolutely priceless.
As is usual at Boscobel, sets and props are minimal, lighting and musical interludes (including a doo-wop rendition of “Take, O Take Those Lips Away”) spot-on and Amy Clark’s thrown-together, hilariously clashing thrift-store costumes a total joy. It’s a wonderful production all around.
Measure for Measure will be performed on July 7, 10, 14, 20, 23, 24, 26 and 29 and August 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 18, 24 and 28. Ticket prices range from $10 to $84 depending on date, seating location and other variables, so check out http://hvshakespeare.org/whats-playing/measure-for-measure.html for more details and to order.