Director Tyne Rafaeli has talked about how she wanted Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s new production of Measure for Measure to be an allegory for contemporary politics. I’m not ashamed to admit I was ready to roll my eyes, as many a great playwright—Shakespeare, let’s face it, first and foremost among them—has had his or her classic works butchered in the name of creating a shallow “modern political parable” that either twists the intended meaning into knots trying to make a point, or goes for shallow, broad satire that can make even a timeless work of art feel like a dated hack job.
With that in mind, I have two remarkable things to report about Rafaeli’s production: 1) she doesn’t turn Angelo, the play’s villain, into Donald Trump; and 2) it’s one of the best SCS productions I’ve ever seen—and I’m counting the last couple of decades before the company was forced to switch the order of “Shakespeare” and “Santa Cruz” in its name.
Last year’s inspired production of Hamlet proved SCS is thriving creatively under artistic director Mike Ryan, but Measure for Measure is on a whole other level than that, even. Or perhaps it’s the level of difficulty involved that makes it seem that way; I’ve always found Shakespeare’s tragedies innately weightier and more watchable than his comedies. And don’t get me started on the “problem plays,” which usually play very … er, problematically.
Measure for Measure is one of those, but the typical question of “what’s all this melodrama doing in a supposed comedy” is deftly sidestepped thanks to the incredibly nimble skills of the cast. They can draw you in with an intense build up, nail an out-of-left-field comic moment, and then swing back into the dramatic scene in a way that makes your head spin. It’s a rush, especially watching Rowan Vickers as the Duke, and David Graham Jones as Angelo. Because she has to play it straight the whole way through, Lindsey Rico’s performance as Isabella is more of a slow burn that pays off in the end. But her character’s line that “truth is truth” is the key to Rafaeli’s poignant modernization of the play and its message.
See, I have to think that in 1603 (or possibly 1604) when it was written, Measure for Measure would have been considered, despite its happy ending, a fairly cynical play. After all, when the Duke leaves him in charge of his kingdom, the sanctimonious Angelo, who is willing to have Claudio (played by Kevin Matthew Reyes, who is also fantastic as Pompey) executed for supposed “fornication” (which is really more or less a paperwork glitch), himself attempts to blackmail Claudio’s sister Isabella—a nun, mind you—into sex by offering to spare him if she consents. And yes, Angelo, long a controversial Shakespeare character, can be portrayed as a sadistic fascist, or soulless buffoon, or both.
But you have to see Jones in the scene where Angelo lays out his offer to Isabella. It is a shockingly real and contemporary vision of a man losing his way right in front of his own eyes, and to his own shame. This tragic reading of the character is the only one that makes the reconciliatory ending of the play work, and it’s the only one that would match with the message of Rafaeli’s production. Though its contemporary accessories—black military dress uniforms and jackboots against an effectively stark set and a brilliant mash-up of 20th century decades—give it the air of a dystopian reading, it’s actually the opposite. This is a production about hope, and about bureaucrats, and about hope for bureaucrats. It’s about a system that isn’t broken—even when its leader goes astray. All of the government officials want to do good, especially the cool-nerd Duke (whose disguised movements through his kingdom to try to figure out how to better govern is a political fantasy that is likely to set hearts aflutter in Santa Cruz right about now). Patty Gallagher as the Provost is the government middle manager we all dream of—earnest, steadfast and true. And Tristan Cunningham as Escalus, Angelo’s second-in-command, is convincingly frustrated as she tries to push her boss in the right direction at every opportunity. The state is not the enemy here; it is a blank slate that requires good people to keep it in check and in balance. For the two-and-a-half hours of this play, it has them, and all of the bad decisions of a poor leader are nullified, all mistakes corrected. (I’m not going to say Annie Worden as the comic-relief constable Elbow necessarily represents good government, but god is she hilarious).
Even when Angelo gives in to the lure of “fake news,” layering on ludicrous aspersions of conspiracy to try to save himself upon the Duke’s return, he soon sees the error of his ways. Truth is truth, the play assures us. For everyone. It may not be the Shakespeare play we deserve right now, but it’s the one we need.
‘Measure for Measure’ runs through Sept. 2 at the Grove, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. For more details and to purchase tickets, go to santacruzshakespeare.org.