Measure for Measure is known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” but that’s not a problem for Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company. “There are two ways to look at it,” notes company co-founder David Aston-Reese, who will star as Duke Vincentio in this summer’s production of the play at Woodstock’s Comeau Property. “It’s a problem for the characters in the play — or the play itself has a problem.”
The term “problem play” was coined by critic F. S. Boas in 1896 to refer to several works of Shakespeare’s that address social issues in a complex manner that makes them hard to identify as either comedy or tragedy. Measure for Measure is sometimes called a dark comedy, with its focus on themes of justice, sexual morality, and abuse of power.
“It’s one of those plays that’s listed as a comedy,” explains Aston-Reese, “basically because everyone gets married at the end of the play, and no one gets killed. Actually, a lot of the action takes place in a prison. And then there’s the bed trick and the head trick.”
The plot concerns a duke who tries to address corruption in his realm by taking a vacation during which he sticks around, disguised as a friar, to see what will happen if he hands over power to a deputy named Angelo. In his zeal, Angelo arrests and condemns to death a young man, Claudio, for his technical failure to publish marriage bans before making his betrothed, Juliet, pregnant. Claudio’s sister, the nun Isabella, pleads for her brother’s life, and Angelo says he’ll issue a pardon if Isabella sleeps with him. The disguised Duke Vincentio, overhearing her dilemma, devises plans to work through the problems without revealing himself — hence the bed trick and the head trick.
According to scholars, the moral ambiguities of the plot make Measure for Measure confusing but also engaging for the audience, as they weigh the actions of characters who are often easy to identify with, even though they sometimes behave reprehensibly.
Aston-Reese compared the play to last summer’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well, also considered a problem play. “That one was fun to do, but as a director, it was like pulling teeth,” he remembers. “It was sprawling, with awkward scenes. Measure for Measure is a tight, focused play, and everything gets wrapped up in the last scene.”
The play is directed by Gordon W. Brown, with a cast that includes many Bird-on-a-Cliff regulars, such as Chris Bailey, Michael DaTorre, Marcy Thorn, Bethany Goldpaugh-Brown, Allan Edmands, Geneva Turner. Also featured are Tad Richards, Robert Sheridan, Adolfo Ibanez, James B. Stokes, Morgan Thrapp, Diego Buscaglia, Olga Babijtchouk, Brandon Hargrove, Alyona, and producer and company co-founder Elli Michaels.
As usual, performances will take place on Bird-on-a-Cliff’s outdoor Elizabethan stage. Efforts are underway to procure minimal shelter for the audience, after 10 out of last year’s 18 performances were canceled due to rain. “It’s disheartening for the actors, and it hurts us terribly,” says Michaels. “Then when you get a nice day, you forget all about that. But I’m not forgetting any more. The climate is changing — we need to have something.”
Plans call for a series of canvas or nylon “sails”, horizontal sheets that will protect the audience from sun and rain. A set of sails for the stage may come later. “They will look nice,” says Michaels. “We’re getting the various permissions we need to dig holes for the support posts, which will go through sleeves in the sails so they can be removed.”
The project will cost from $6,000 to $12,000, and Michaels is hoping to get sponsorship from local banks. She doesn’t know yet if the sails will be in place for any of this summer’s shows. “Anything is possible,” she observes.
Forthcoming Bird-on-a-Cliff projects include a traveling, site-specific production of The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, scheduled for the fall. The productions will take place in courthouses around the region. “Friends who are lawyers are looking into which courthouses might say yes,” reports Michaels.
In partnership with Kevin Kraft of Woodstock Transition, a group working toward local energy sustainability, Bird-on-a-Cliff plans to show a documentary onstage after the August 26 performance, as darkness falls. The film, entitled Tapped, is about the environmental impact of bottled water.
“It’s nice to be able to try to help the town,” says Michaels, “to be a venue for such a wonderful movement.”++
Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company will present Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure on its outdoor stage at the Comeau Property, 45 Comeau Drive in Woodstock on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 5:00 pm, from July 27 to September 2. Bring the family, bring a chair, bring a picnic. Admission is free, and donations are accepted.